In the early days of the pandemic, we changed our daily routines, limited social interactions and found new home-based hobbies. Through all the upheaval and change, there was a significant silver lining: many of us inadvertently adopted planet-positive activities that improved the health of the environment. The pandemic underscored the fragility of “normal,” reframing our attention on the next major global risk: climate change and biodiversity loss.
Lockdowns allowed for remarkable shifts in the planet’s health, and it seems the lack of human presence in the environment allowed nature to return to a healthier state. Los Angeles’ air quality was better than it had been in decades; Venice’s famous canals were so clear that sea life was once again visible; and the air and water quality in China improved significantly. Researchers found a record seven percent decline in global greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, with the emissions in the U.S. alone down more than 10 percent. A modeling study published in the medical journal The Lancet found that COVID-19-related reductions in air pollution in China and Europe may have averted tens of thousands of premature deaths.
However, these improvements were short-lived. As major economies began resuming their pre-COVID activities, the improvements in global environmental health have nearly vanished. In China, the first economy to rebound during the pandemic, CO2 emissions rose 9% over pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter of 2021. The International Energy Agency recently projected that 2021 will see the second-biggest increase in global CO2 emissions in history – a far cry from the sustained reductions needed to reach net zero by 2050 – and the World Meteorological Organization reported a 40% chance that global average temperatures will temporarily surpass the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming benchmark within the next five years. Scientists expect global warming will have long-term climate change effects if temperatures consistently average over that threshold. By no means is the climate change puzzle an easy one to solve. However, the pandemic offered a sneak peek at the progress that is possible when humans are forced to soften their environmental footprint. Now, with social-distancing restrictions relaxing and more individuals receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, will we be able to keep up the environmentally-positive behaviors developed during the pandemic that can help us live more sustainably? Here are five we should make habitual in our post-pandemic lives:
1. Vacation with a lighter footprint
With frequent flyers grounded last year, the decline in air travel brought down global CO2 emissions. Pre-pandemic, air travel contributed about 2.4% of global CO2 emissions and often accounted for the largest share of personal emissions for even occasional travelers. Consider local exploration by bike, train, or a car full of friends. For those eager to satisfy their wanderlust with long-haul flights, consider longer stays at eco-friendly destinations and purchasing carbon offsets for flights.
2. Ditch the daily commute
Many of those who participated in the global work-from-home experiment proved they can be as productive remotely as they are in-office. The decline in daily commuting resulted in positive impacts on traffic and pollution. As offices start to reopen, many companies are implementing more flexible work arrangements. If WFH is an option for you, consider commuting less, particularly by car, which can decrease stress and help in reducing air pollution and respiratory problems. In fact, if everyone in the U.S. worked remotely half of the time, greenhouse gas emissions from vehicle travel could be reduced by more than 51 million metric tons a year, according to estimates from Global Workplace Analytics.
3. Opt for a greener home makeover
With so much time spent homebound, home improvement projects increased dramatically during the pandemic, with many building dedicated office space or upgrading their at-home entertainment spaces. Homeowners should use clean, renewable energy sources and products with increased efficiency – this can benefit the environment, control long-term costs, and add to resale value. Federal, state and local governments also offer incentives for installing renewable energy sources to homes, such as solar panels or energy-saving devices such as smart thermostats or ductless AC and heating units. Options for renters can be more limited, but working with a landlord or management company can help ensure the rental is energy-efficient and well-insulated. Even small changes like installing LED lightbulbs and low-flow toilets can add up to a healthier environment.
4. Reseed that Victory Garden
We all remember the pandemic’s strain on the food supply chain in early 2020, which resulted in bare store shelves and elevated grocery prices. In response, many used their time at home to level up their cooking game, cultivate sourdough starters, and plant the garden they’d always hoped to grow. Growing vegetables and fruit at home encourages consumption of local food, reducing the CO2 emission that results from transporting food across thousands of miles. Fortunately, the benefits of gardening also extend to the grower. Research shows that increasing time spent outdoors can lower stress and improve mental health and emotional well-being. Gardening also encourages a more plant-based diet, which can have a major positive impact on climate change. While it may be politically controversial, the science is clear that current methods of meat production are unsustainable. In fact, a 2019 UN IPCC special report found that balanced diets featuring plant-based foods and “animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-GHG emission systems” present huge opportunities to mitigate climate change and improve human health.
5. Buy stocks with purpose
As day trading on commission-free investment apps grew, we watched the stock of companies like Gamestop and AMC reach unprecedented highs. But rather than trying to pick winners with the Reddit crowd, there are many ways to become personally invested in the transition to a low-carbon economy. More and more renewable energy, cleantech, EV and sustainability companies are publicly traded, and there’s a growing list of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that allow for investments in bundles of stocks in green industries like solar, wind, and hydrogen.
As more of the population gets vaccinated and health and public officials loosen restrictions, we’re all feeling the urge to pick up where we left off in early 2020. But let’s not forget the lessons we’ve learned about ourselves, our resilience and our planet’s potential to heal.
While transforming our economy and making systemic changes to meet the Paris Agreement goals will depend on action by governments and industry, our hope is that we emerge from this experience more conscious of our personal impact on the environment and knowledgeable about making sustainable choices in our daily lives. The health of our planet – and in turn our personal health and that of future generations – depends on it.