Will the pandemic’s blue skies last?

A look into whether COVID-19 is helping or hurting the climate crisis

Disposable masks are often littered.
Photo: 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, the resulting international shutdown brought clearer skies, sparking hope in humanity’s fight against climate change—but that hope might be misplaced. 

Shuttered workplaces and travel restrictions meant fewer commuters taking polluting vehicles to work. Factory shutdowns in China, a country where energy is overwhelmingly sourced from coal, resulted in a 25 per cent reduction in its carbon emissions

At a time when death tolls, postponed celebrations, and unease about the future dominated the minds of many, media outlets were quick to pick up these inspiring images of unpolluted city skylines and happy animals reclaiming their habitats. 

“Humans are the real virus,” was a frequent response to this type of imagery.

While quarantine has reduced emissions worldwide and improved air quality in big cities, it turns out many of those cute animal stories had nothing to do with the shutdown. 

Is the same true for the virus as a whole—are we putting its environmental impact in too positive of a light?  

At the start of the pandemic, uncertainty in the mechanisms of the virus’s transmission lead to unforeseen measures that have set back a sustainable future. 

Coffee chains like Starbucks banned reusable cups, fearing they were a vector for the spread of COVID-19. Plastic bags made a comeback as grocery stores stopped charging customers fees for their use. Reusable bags were banned without concrete evidence that they’d contribute to virus transmission. 

We now know there isn’t a substantial difference between reusable materials like steel and disposable materials like plastic when it comes to the virus lingering on surfaces.

Social distancing, wearing masks, and washing our hands with soap do more to protect us than the illusion of safety offered by single-use plastic. Besides, you’re going to wash your reusable cups and bags more than your disposables.

Some disposables are necessary, though. Medical waste has soared as frontline workers use protective equipment that needs to be disposed after a single use. 

Littering, however, is less understandable. People have taken to dropping used gloves—which you don’t really need—single-use masks, and sanitizing wipes on the ground, contributing to even more pollution than usual. 

There’s also the issue of what happens after the pandemic ends. 

Without restructuring our post-COVID society, the rush to boost the economy might increase polluting activities to levels higher than before the pandemic. China’s pollution has already returned to where it was pre-shutdown, and the rest of the world is well on its way. Governments may be less willing to invest in sustainability, seen as a risk, at a time when the economy is sensitive. 

Still, there’s some hope. Just a year ago, the thought of shutting down societies worldwide was unthinkable. The pandemic has showed us that the world’s nations are capable of working together to combat a global threat. 

On an individual level, some of us have changed our habits for the better, like learning to grow and make our own food instead of getting takeout and purchasing produce flown halfway around the world.

Here in Canada, the government has committed to a climate-focused economic recovery, which includes banning single-use plastics, funding clean technology, and modernizing the Environmental Protection Act. 

If world leaders see the climate crisis for what it is—a global crisis—and commit to bettering  our systems instead of falling back into unsustainable patterns, we could come out on the other side of this pandemic with hope for the future of our planet. 

 

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