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Is COVID-19 good for the environment? Answer is mixed

The pandemic is swinging a double-edged sword when it comes to the environment.

On the plus side, traffic emissions are down and changing work habits could reduce vehicle trips in the long run as well. And activists hope the handling — and ill-informed mishandling — of the crisis will boost the public’s faith in science to guide long-term policy.

But the coronavirus also has stalled efforts to reduce single-use plastic foodware and other non-biodegradble disposables that end up in the ocean, along roads and in landfills. The pandemic surge in takeout food has led to more litter, with the increase in containers, utensils and bags compounded by a new waste stream of discarded masks and gloves.

Additionally, the crisis has given some lawmakers and government agencies — including President Donald Trump and his administration — fresh fuel for efforts to roll back environmental regulations they consider excessive.

At the same time, cuts to the workforce include hundreds of thousands of clean energy jobs, slowing the transition from fossil fuels.

As for all those Amazon boxes that are helping cut down trips to the store, it remains to be seen whether most of them wind up recycled or tossed in the dump.

Here’s a look at four important ways the pandemic is affecting the environment, both short term and long term:

Air quality

Remember Southern California’s stunningly blue skies in March and early April, when most people were forced to work at home or not work at all?

Turns out it might not have been entirely pandemic-related. Though reducing car emissions is key to pristine vistas in the long-term, seasonal weather may have had more to do with those particular weeks of clean air.

Two of the three primary components to air pollution — nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter — were down significantly worldwide in the wake of the coronavirus shutdowns, according to a report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The third, ozone, was up slightly.

And in Southern California, it didn’t hurt that traffic hit a low point in early April, with a 43% reduction in car flows and a 26% reduction in truck travel, according to an analysis by the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

But early spring typically finds cleaner air in the area because of moderate temperatures. That trend was further buoyed by rains that coincided with the best air days, the analysis showed.

“Emissions are by far the most important factor in achieving clean air standards,” air quality specialist Scott Epstein told the district board in June. “But these day to day variations … are mostly driven by weather.”

By late April, the district was reporting “unhealthy” air quality almost daily. In early May, that dipped to a couple days of a “very unhealthy” rating.

Those are the types of days where turning temporary, pandemic behaviors — such as working from home and making fewer trips to the grocery store — into lasting habits would make a difference.

“It would seem that more companies are understanding that remote work is a viable option,” said Will Barrett, director of clean air advocacy for the American Lung Association. “And that could have real benefits in terms of reducing rush hour gridlock.”

Renewable energy

Less traffic means less of the carbon emissions that contributes to global warming. But climate change activists’ primary target is the long-term replacement of fossil fuels with renewable sources such as solar and wind energy. That energy, in turn, can power electric cars and trucks as well as homes, factories, ports and other businesses.

While Trump administration regulations have usually favored oil and coal over renewable sources, California has continued its push for clean energy.

The pandemic may have slowed that push, but change continues. Barrett and environmentalists were particularly pleased by a California Air Resources Board decision in June that calls for the transition to zero-emission trucks, with all commercial trucks slated to have no tailpipe emissions by 2045.

But such mandates are only part of the equation.

The clean energy job sector — which includes everything from solar panel installers to designers of LED lighting systems — has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic economy. Nationwide, a half million clean energy workers — more than 15% of the sector’s workforce — have applied for unemployment since February, and just one in six of those workers have gotten their jobs back, according to data released Aug. 12 by a coalition of three clean energy trade and advocacy groups.

California hasn’t been immune, losing 89,000 jobs — nearly 17% of its clean energy workforce.

Fossil fuel companies, which have also suffered from the pandemic, have received at least $3 billion in federal coronavirus aid, according to an analysis by The Guardian. Meanwhile, clean energy companies complain that even though their industry is growing and the petroleum sector is shrinking, they’ve not received comparable assistance.

“Study after study — as well as history — shows investing in clean energy is the best and fastest way to build back our economy,” said Bob Keefe, executive director of the trade group Environmental Entrepreneurs. “Why doesn’t Congress get it — and do something?”

A Morning Consult poll in late April found that 56% of voters favored a bailout for the renewable energy industry while a more modest 38% backed a bailout for the oil industry.

Former Federal Reserve board member Sarah Bloom Raskin directed blame at her former institution.

“The Fed is ignoring clear warning signs about the economic repercussions of the impending climate crisis by taking action that will lead to increases in greenhouse gas emissions at a time when even in the short term, fossil fuels are a terrible investment,” Raskin wrote in The New York Times in May.

Single-use plastics

Many environmentalists agree that the magnitude of the pandemic, in some cases, merited a temporary pause in the push to phase out single-use plastics, including Gov. Gavin Newsom’s two-month suspension of the state’s single-use bag ban. Though early worries of transmitting the disease via surfaces have declined as scientists have learned more about the virus, many agree that the initial vigilance was appropriate.

However, there are concerns of longer term consequences when it comes to pandemic-related use of plastics.

It’s become clear that more carryout food means that more plastic containers and utensils — and plastic bags from restaurants, which are exempt from the statewide ban — end up as ocean and roadside trash. New additions to the litter stream include masks and gloves. Initial data from the Surfrider Foundation shows a 50% increase in items collected at beach cleanups this year than at this point last year, a jump that’s a result of both more trash and fewer cleanups by other groups.

This increased habit of buying takeout food could stick around after it’s fully safe to dine in restaurants again, activists say.

“Not only is there more of a habit to get takeout food, but there’ll be an increase of single-use plastics because there’s a belief that single-use plastics protect us,”  said Julie Anderson of Plastic Oceans International.

Anderson and others are trying to combat that perception, saying there is little danger of spreading COVID-19 on reusables — particularly if they are washed between uses. Additionally, the Center for Disease Control has updated its guidance, noting that there’s been no documentation of anyone catching the coronavirus from an inanimate surface.

“Transmission of coronavirus occurs much more commonly through respiratory droplets than through objects and surfaces,” according to the CDC website.

Because reusable foodware is not yet practical for most takeout, environmentalists’ preferred single-use material is described as “marine degradable.”

Santa Monica is among a handful of cities now requiring takeout containers and utensils fit that definition. But efforts by other cities, counties and states to impose similar rules have often been stalled by COVID-19.

Los Angeles County is among those that, pre-pandemic, was developing an ordinance to limit the use of plastics. In January, it had received policy recommendations in an extensive study commissioned from UCLA, before things ground to a halt.

“It was decided that during the pandemic was not a good time to engage restaurants on the issue and was not a good time to impose additional requirements on restaurants,” said Gary Gero. As the county’s chief sustainability officer, Gero was overseeing development of new plastics policy but is currently managing the county’s COVID-19 emergency food program.

Meanwhile, there has been no activity at all this year on a pair of statewide bills, SB 54 and AB 1080, that would require California to “reduce and recycle” 75% of single-use plastics by 2030. Currently, less than 15% of single-use plastics used in the state is recycled, according to Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, author of SB 54.

“The pandemic is slowing down the legislative efforts on so many important issues, from climate change to plastic pollution,” said Dan Jacobson, a Sacramento lobbyist for Environment California.

For those seeking a greener approach to takeout right now, Surfrider maintains a list of ocean-friendly restaurants on its website.

The Trump factor

When Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act, on Aug. 4, it was a rare instance of him giving environmentalists something to celebrate. In addition to ensuring a permanent budget for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, it allocates $9.5 billion over five years to shore up sorely needed maintenance in national parks.

Far longer is the list of dozens of steps that Trump has initiated or supported to weaken environmental laws, including changes to the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. His effort to revoke California’s ability to set its own emissions standards, which he’s said forces unnecessary costs on the automobile industry, is being challenged in court by a California-led coalition of 23 states.

In all, he’s weakened or revoked at least 19 air quality and emissions measures, according to a New York Times roundup.

On June 4, Trump cited the pandemic as a reason for for issuing an executive order that waived parts of the landmark National Environmental Policy Act, signed into law by President Richard Nixon. Trump said the move is intended to fast-track construction of highways, pipelines and other infrastructure during the pandemic.

“Unnecessary regulatory delays will deny our citizens opportunities for jobs and economic security, keeping millions of American out of work and hindering our economic emergency,” he wrote in the order.

Environmentalists called that explanation an unjustifiable excuse.

“Trump has used the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic to put his anti-environment agenda into overdrive,” said Ryan Schleeter of Greenpeace. “In the middle of a public health crisis centered around a respiratory disease, all of these rollbacks make air quality worse.”

Source: Orange County Register

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