Emily Chang / W. Ranch High School 11th Grade
With the onset of the global pandemic COVID-19, countries around the world shut down most public locations, resulting in fewer cars on the road and factories running. Video calls replaced highway commutes, and YouTube videos took the place of airplane rides around the world. At first glance, it seemed as though quarantine offered a chance for the environment to rebound to a shadow of its former, pre-industrial glory. However, as with all worldwide changes, environmental alterations are entirely nuanced and reveal the dynamic relationship between people and the environment.
China, for instance, saw an initial 30% drop in nitrogen dioxide emissions from January to February according to NASA. Nitrogen dioxide, a known pollutant from the combustion of fossil fuels, is primarily in the atmosphere due to both industry and transportation. In March, the air quality in China was up 11.4% compared to one year ago in over 300 cities according to BBC. The same story was seen in many European countries. The European Environment Agency saw weekly reductions in nitrogen dioxide by 40-50% in major cities like Barcelona and Lisbon.
Even the promising changes seen lately, though, are far from perfect. Most of the reduced emissions come solely from industry and transportation. Riley Duren, the cofounder of Megacities Carbon Project, argues that methane emissions, on the other hand, are likely to remain the same since the amount of waste created per capita likely will not change. That waste then goes to landfills and contributes to atmospheric methane levels at the same rate as prior to the pandemic. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide per the Environmental Defense Fund, and thus still presents an environmental threat.
According to Jill Baumgartner, associate professor at McGill University, the recent environmental gains are not expected to last, and a global shutdown cannot be viewed as a sustainable solution. Per USA Today, “air quality will likely revert to its previous state once normal activity resumes as cities and countries manage to quell the virus outbreak as has been the case in China.” If society collectively decides that the progress witnessed over the past few months is “enough”, we will resume using up resources and spitting out pollutants at our normal rate. This quarantine should not be a “pause” in which the Earth can take a breath before we trample it once more. It instead should be a reminder of the unsustainable rate at which we are using resources and exploiting our planet. It should be a testament to how the air, water, and land can improve with alterations to the human lifestyle. It should be a sign that something has to change.
The way society approaches the issue of sustainability as stay-at-home orders begin lifting will largely influence the future of our planet. Milan, for example, is already taking the lead and is setting 35 kilometers of street space aside for the use of cyclists and pedestrians, per The Guardian.
As for us as individuals, even small changes that seem insignificant are truly impactful in the grand scheme of change. Environmental footprint calculators show how unsustainable the average American’s lifestyle is, as well as different ways to live more sustainably. Everything from walking or biking instead of driving to local areas, choosing energy efficient appliances, or even passive solar energy techniques can make a difference in keeping our Earth clean.
<Emily Chang / W. Ranch High School 11th Grade>