Environmental lessons from the pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic triggered lockdowns around the world, it decreased human impact on the environment.

Air pollution rapidly decreased and ecosystems began healing. According to an analysis by Carbon Brief (a British website sharing data about climate change), the pandemic is set to cause the largest ever-annual dip in CO2 emissions since scientists began measuring them, on track to drop about 5.5%.

Carbon emissions globally are dropping, largely because of economic collapse and rising global death tolls. China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, saw around a 25% decrease in carbon emissions over a four-week period according to an analysis by Carbon Brief that studied life in China while the country was in lockdown. In Canada, according to an analysis by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the air pollution in the five largest cities decreased as much as 15%.

But these dramatic changes aren’t enough to restore the planet to health. “Even this would not come close to bringing the 1.5 C global temperature limit within reach,” says the Carbon Brief analysis. “Global emissions would need to fall by some 7.6% every year this decade—nearly 2,800 tonnes of CO2 in 2020—in order to limit warming to less than 1.5 C above pre-industrial temperatures.”

And while the pandemic has pushed us closer to our climate goals it is not the way we sustainably fight for the future. We can’t stop here.

But I worry we will.

I worry people will feel like we’ve sacrificed enough and we’ll leave behind the climate as we work to restore a normal life. However some have kept our efforts moving forward.

Fridays for Future, a global climate movement hasn’t stopped fighting. Every Friday organizers strike—digitally. On April 24, 2020, Germany had the biggest digital strike in history with over 230,000 participants.

Not long ago activists were marching through Halifax for the climate. Activism is rapidly changing, and it will change the way people fight the system. 

And the systems themselves are changing. In Milan, Italy, the government announced a plan to reduce car use after lockdown. During the city’s lockdown, motor traffic and congestion dropped by 30–75%. Air pollution also plummeted. When the pandemic ends, officials intend to transform streets into cycling and walking pathways for citizens. Similarly the government in Seattle on the U.S. West Coast announced plans to close 32 km of streets to motor vehicles permanently when the pandemic ends.

We’re seeking freedom and new beginnings. We want to resume familiar things. But many of those things damage our planet. A better tomorrow is revealing itself today and we must take notes.

We are consuming differently. As economies suffer we’re investing in each other and the things that are local. We shop less often, changing the way we look at what’s in our pantries. Some people are doing their own baking, growing gardens. After being cooped up at home, we appreciate nature more.

This drastic reduction in human impact is impossible to continue, because life must resume. But we also see that every person can have an impact. Changing our habits isn’t as hard as we thought. Cities and countries can adapt quickly, when they choose. And the global fight against the pandemic shows that we’re more powerful together, and we can continue to use that power to fight for change.

We have been given a chance to create a better world—now the real work begins.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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