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Pandemic Lessons

Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have had massive ramifications on ecosystems and the atmosphere, businesses and social norms, explained  Chris Field, Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, at a recent online panel discussion focused on what lessons can be learned from the world’s monumental public health crisis. The impacts of climate change are unfolding over a longer timescale but are expected to be similarly problematic around the globe. A recent article authored by the event participants and other experts looked into the Earth System responses to COVID-19 and discussed that while reduced human activity had large effects in the short term, cascading effects of economic recession on global poverty, green investment and human behavior are likely to have more long term consequences. 

Air Pollution and the Energy Sector

There are a number of positive environmental changes that have resulted from shelter-in-place orders and pandemic response, including improvements in air quality, declines in greenhouse gas emissions, improved wildlife habitat, and surprisingly, noise reduction and ecological changes in soundscapes, said Rob Jackson, professor of Earth System Science. However, there are also drawbacks. In Brazil, the pandemic lead to less frequent inspections and a one-third increase in deforestation

At the onset of the lockdown efforts, emissions plummeted by a third in the United States, but emissions reductions due to economic crashes are not sustainable, said Jackson. Instead of forcing people to stay at home to reduce pollution, we could have the same benefit in cities around the world by coupling clean energy to electric cars and changing vehicle fleets. There are ways to decouple air pollution from economic activity by rethinking how we generate that activity. However, Inês Azevedo, professor of Energy Resources Engineering, warned that in order for electric vehicles to be a viable strategy for decarbonization, we have to clean up the power sector. Increasing the use of renewables, nuclear, or natural gas as a transition fuel away from coal, and financial incentives tied to the environmental benefit for the adoption of electric vehicles are key. 

Rethinking Cities

Green spaces in cities are beneficial to people’s mental health as well as the environment and air quality and that is another thing that could change as cities start to revive and rebuild, said Margaret Levi, Director of Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and professor of political science. The pandemic is giving city managers an opportunity to rethink mobility and transportation, such as closing roads to provide more space for pedestrians and restaurants, said Jackson. 

In order to absorb and acknowledge the lessons from the pandemic, it has to produce a sustained change in beliefs about how the world works and change in institutions warned Levi. The challenges of the pandemic have encouraged people to think differently about how they want to get around, interact with other people, work, and operate in the world. People in cities are creating spaces and making demands for roads to stay closed and that is evidence of an open mindedness to institutional change. Leadership is also critical to institutional change. Not only those we elect but experts who are a part of generating new solutions. 

Expertise in keeping equity in mind as we upgrade power grids so that they are more efficient and environmentally sound, but distribute power to everyone who needs it is needed, added Levi. Experts can be more effective in contributing to positive change by collaborating with the political sector and taking a wholistic view of concerns.  

Environmental Justice Implications

The pandemic has disproportionately impacted low-income and minority communities in terms of health impacts and job losses. In speaking on environmental justice, Azevedo explained that during the lockdown, emissions from criteria pollutants from power plants and industries decreased substantially and there is a benefit of reduced pre-mature mortality associated with that decrease. That benefit will go largely to minority and low-income households which are disproportionately affected by air pollution from coal-fired power plants in the United States. 

Climate change, land management and randomness all play a role in hurricanes bearing down on the Gulf Coast, fires all over the Western U.S. and billions of dollars in damages from disasters becoming the norm. However, there are also gross social and economic inequities. Jackson argued that the climate and pollution problem cannot be fixed without addressing injustice and inequities in resource consumption. 

The food system is another area of concern with agriculture surpassing other sectors in terms of the gross external damage from air pollution, said Azevedo. Rates of COVID-19 among agricultural workers are high. Food nutrition, availability, and carbon impact are also issues tied to environmental justice and what food is available for low-income communities. The pandemic has also highlighted that urban spaces, home to many low-income communities, lack equal access to parks and the outdoors and the benefits of nature. As wealthy populations leave cities, it’s too early to tell what long-term impacts this may have on urban planning, but the inequities are glaring, said Jackson. Lower-income populations are more at risk left behind in cities during the pandemic and it highlights the environmental and social justice elements at play. 

The pandemic has shown a spotlight on weakness in infrastructure and society and many of the barriers to progress are related to entrenched interests. The racial justice movement has made it clear that community involvement should be much greater. Until we are much more ambitious about tackling injustice, all of our other issues we will need to address will be much more challenging, Field concluded. 

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