COVID-19 Q&A: How has the pandemic impacted the environment?

"Our lives are not inconsequential, and our everyday decisions about how to spend our time and energy matter – we have the power to make life better for the world around us if we so choose"
Elena Bennett is an Associate Professor in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences and the School of Environment.

While the world has been locked down for much of the spring and summer, airplanes have been grounded, fishing fleets have sat mostly idle and cars have stayed parked in their driveway as people worked from home. What kind of impact has this had on the environment? And what lessons have we learned from the relatively quick pivot governments and citizens have made to combat the spread of COVID-19? Can we apply the same commitment and speed of mobilization to pressing issues like climate change?  

To answer these questions, we spoke to Elena Bennett, Associate Professor in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences and the School of Environment. Bennett is an ecosystem ecologist and the co-founder of the group Seeds of Good Anthropocenes, which collects and studies the ways that people address environmental problems.

There are all kinds of stories on social media about how the environment has benefitted from the shutdown – reduction of smog in major urban centres, sea turtles laying eggs on once-crowded beaches, dolphins in Venice canals, etc. Does science back up the anecdotes?

Some aspects of the ecosystems around us have surely benefitted from the shutdown in terms have having less pressure from people. There is pretty clear evidence of reduction of smog and urban air pollution in some places, for example. We typically see that response for pollutants that are able to change rapidly – airborne pollutants are a great example.

One study found up to 60 per cent reductions in small particulate matter in 7 out of 10 studied cities. In that study, the greatest reductions were typically seen in those cities with historically higher levels of particulate matter pollution.

But other aspects of ecosystems change only very slowly – pollutants that get lodged in soil, for example – and problems caused by those slowly-changing drivers are generally not showing any response to the shutdown. That is also true of things like erosion, that are driven by something other than the factors that are changing due to the shutdown.

Because you mentioned dolphins in Venice canals, I want to say very clearly that there were, especially early on, many false or fake stories that went viral about animals returning to formerly polluted places. In the case of Venice, the once busy canals did become quiet, and this did bring with it clearer water, but it did not bring swans or dolphins as some claimed. (The photo that usually accompanied that story was taken far from the canals of Venice.)

How much “healing” can the planet actually do in 4-5 months? Is this just further proof of how “forgiving” our planet is?

I think people really, really want to believe that the planet is resilient and “forgiving,” especially now.

In the excellent book Panarchy: Understanding transformations in human and natural systems, Lance Gunderson and C.S. “Buzz” Holling point out five caricatures or myths about nature that we hold – that it is random, that it is stable, that it is unstable, that it is resilient, and that it is evolving. Lance and Buzz go on to point out that none of these myths is completely right, nor is any completely wrong – they are all just incomplete visions of the same world. The reality is that parts of the world are resilient to certain stressors, and they are random in the face of others, etc.

That means we really have to get into the details about what aspect of the planet we’re talking about and what we mean by ‘forgiving’ before we can answer this question. But in general, I would say that we’ve seen changes in things like air pollution that cycle quickly and so are easier to change. And we have not seen changes in those things that are traditionally harder to fix or respond more slowly.

One thing I do think that this has shown is just how much human systems can change in a short period. Things started to shut down pretty significantly in mid-March in most parts of the world.

By April 1, 2020, according to Flightradar24, the number of flights was down 40 percent. Stories of people who might normally fill their cars with gas weekly were going weeks or even months without needing a fill-up. These changes were amazingly swift – faster than anyone could have predicted after years of being told that we need to move towards climate change objectives slowly in order to not disrupt the economy. So, whether the world is forgiving or not, I don’t know, but I do think that we’re seeing that human systems can change very rapidly.

The reason that’s important, of course, is that we really need to see rapid changes in human societies right now, especially in terms of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and a slowing of anthropogenic change in land use and land cover. For a long time, the response to scientists’ and activists’ calls for change has been, “that would be impossible” and “it would have too great an impact on the economy.” And, not to say that the slowdown has not affected the economy, and especially vulnerable people, but I think we have seen that far more change in human society is possible far more rapidly than anyone would have expected.

Technology has allowed many to work, shop, consult their doctor, take classes, etc., from home – thereby reducing our carbon footprint significantly. How hopeful are you that as things gradually return to ‘normal,’ we adopt this kind of remote reality to varying degrees?

It seems to me that we’ll likely not ‘return to normal’ where things go back to exactly how they once were, but maybe move towards some sort of ‘new normal’. It remains to be seen how much of our lower carbon footprint lifestyles we will keep in that ‘new normal’ world.

As with so many things, I guess it will ultimately be a mix … I know some of my colleagues, who are spread around the world, are missing each other and eager to see one another and discuss science in person at conferences and workshops when we are able to do that again. But I also think we’ve learned that virtual conferences held online only can fulfill at least some of our conference goals, and so maybe we’ll keep a mixture of virtual and in-person conferences going forward.

To keep as much of that low carbon footprint, low environmental footprint lifestyles as we can, we should start having conversations about that now, and doing the underlying science to know which aspects of our ‘new normal’ would be most impactful and important to hold onto.

We should also be studying how to do this. For example, one thing I’ve personally really enjoyed is how cities have been able to quickly reorganize their roads, setting aside area for new bike lanes and even keeping cars off some streets entirely to allow for more pedestrian traffic that is able to stay socially distant. It seems to me that it would be very worthwhile to do a few surveys to see how people like the new traffic patterns to figure out whether it is worth keeping what we’ve put in place during the shutdown.

During the pandemic, some people have been trying to support local businesses and growing their own food. On the other hand, a lot of people have been stockpiling and ordering online massively and therefore creating a lot of waste (packaging, transport, etc.). Is there a balance to be found in which we are meeting our basic needs without overconsumption?

I wonder how much stockpiling is really happening. I’m sure there is some going on, but I’ve been much more aware of folks turning towards community rather than away from it to cope with the pandemic and its affects. That is, I’ve seen a lot more of folks reaching out to neighbours to help than ‘circling the wagons’ to keep folks out.

For example, in Hudson where I live, people began donating money to ‘pre-purchase’ meals at our local hamburger stand, Sauvé. The owners put big post-its in the window advertising the various meals people had pre-purchased so that those in need could get a free meal. And most people who are trying to profit from stockpiling, like the gentleman early on in the pandemic who had purchased something like 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer, ended up being the subject of scrutiny. Ultimately, I think he donated two-thirds of what he had to people in need.

On a related question, do you think the pandemic has helped consumers gain a better understanding of what we “need” as opposed to what we “want”? Many of us have been paring away the superfluous in our daily lives. What can we do to remember these lessons as things slowly return to ‘normal’?

Perhaps in communities in the “global North” like most of those in Canada, this has helped people to focus on what we need instead of what we want. In some ways, I think it also highlights the importance of some things – friends, family, community – that we might have previously taken for granted. I know for me, this has really highlighted how essential our community (friends and family) is to the wellbeing of my family.

The pandemic mobilized much of the global community, as it did nationally and locally, to address the threat in direct, concrete ways. Going forward, do you think there are lessons to be learned here that may be applied when addressing climate change and other environmental issues?

One thing that I’ve seen in the pandemic and our response is how well we can take care of each other when we make it a priority.

At the start of all of this, especially, friends were reaching out to each other to check in, or calling elderly neighbours to do any shopping they might need done. I really enjoyed, for example, a few Zoom calls with a group of friends that I’ve been close to since graduate school 20 years ago. It was very affirming to hear from friends all over North America who are so active in making their world a better place, through political action or designing shadow economies in their communities, bringing healthy food to those who need it or using or art and theatre to bring people together or designing better structures for online communities.

It was just really inspiring to remember how many people are out there working hard to make our lives just a bit better, a bit ‘greener’ and more kind. I think for me, that’s been the essential lesson. Our lives are not inconsequential, and our everyday decisions about how to spend our time and energy matter – we have the power to make life better for the world around us if we so choose.