Coronavirus presents an additional challenge & opportunity (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
Our atmosphere is getting a breath of fresh air, but it’s not because of the Paris Agreement or any political awakening to the climate crisis. It’s because of the new coronavirus, COVID-19. Yet even as emissions fall and we put our highly-carbonized business-as-usual on pause (from fewer people and planes flying to less driving and overall industrial activity) and air quality in certain regions rises, many New Yorkers and other Americans are living increasingly disposable and energy-intense lives that will inevitably have significant impacts on our environment, while plotting our post-pandemic return to an unsustainable prior status quo.
Troublingly, the long-term effects on environmental quality of COVID-19 seem harder to quantify, but it already seems clear that if this pandemic is a test of our environmental and climate commitments, we’re failing.
Certainly, coronavirus is an “environmental wake-up call.” This pandemic is generating the panic we need to tackle the climate emergency. My fear, though, is that by lauding temporarily falling emissions, we’re forgetting that we need to tackle the wasteful practices that have become integral to our daily lives—especially in New York City, where we generate over 3 million tons of waste annually (much of which is not actually trash).
Our dependence on disposable products and on disposability more broadly has immense consequences. If this is a wake-up call, we have to account fully for how our response to coronavirus impacts the planet and all of the life it supports. This isn’t just about surviving COVID-19; it’s about building a more sustainable and equitable society in the aftermath.
Despite vast backlash against plastic straws and New York’s recent plastic bag ‘ban,’ it seems that single-use products are back in style. With policies that mandate restaurants provide only takeout or delivery and concerns around touching solid surfaces that may hold residues of COVID-19, many of us are feasting out of plastic containers and stockpiling plastic bottles of everything from Purell to hair conditioner. From trying to follow public health advice as best we can, which often means wearing latex gloves and now, face coverings, to sanitizing our countertops using spray and paper towels, sterilizing our homes almost necessarily seems to translate into living unsustainably, even as it understandably reflects an important dedication to keeping ourselves and our loved ones healthy. We understandably forget about reducing, reusing, and recycling all too easily when we feel that any product kept too long or touched by too many hands may lead to our infection.
Our pandemic behavior has a clear consequence: trash. A lot of it. Think about every container, bag, wipe, paper towel you used once and tossed away this week—and how many other New Yorkers probably did the same. No doubt, it will contribute to landfills already overflowing with municipal solid waste or eventually, wind its way into the ocean, where it may join one of the world’s gyres of marine debris, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and later, line the stomachs of marine life mistaking it for a meal. For those privileged enough not to live near the places our trash ends up, this great amount of waste may not pose an imminent concern. But along with the broader harms it poses to the environment, it will undoubtedly have human consequences, especially for already vulnerable communities. Landfills and hazardous waste sites in the United States are disproportionately located in communities of color and low-income communities. Trash is never just a question of the environment; it’s a question of environmental injustice.
Decreasing CO2 emissions in the short-run doesn’t solve our problems. In fact, as history suggests, it may only exacerbate them. Past episodes that led to similar declines in emissions, like the Great Recession, failed to have lasting effects. Meanwhile, social distancing and self-quarantine practices may encourage greater home energy use which, on net, could still lead to increased CO2 emissions. And, of course, with COVID-19 dominating the global political agenda and media headlines, there appears to be far less space for talk of climate change, undermining the political foothold gained by millions of largely youth climate activists over the last few years.
While we can’t be sure exactly what COVID-19 will ultimately mean for our planet, we can already see that it will not be good news for our current economy. With stock prices dropping and unemployment rising, there is a clear imperative to think about how our government spends its limited funds on both national and local levels. Will we rebuild the same vulnerable economy or support a just transition? Instead of bailing out fossil fuel companies, for instance, we should invest in creating new jobs in the clean energy sector. Sometimes, a shock to our stagnant system is just what we need to motivate us to transform it.
If we’re taking our planet and our communities’ health seriously, then we can’t forget about sustainability in the midst of this pandemic and we certainly can’t return to business as usual when it subsides.
New Yorkers (and all others) need to use this time as an opportunity to reevaluate our choices as consumers and more than that, to critically question a system that drives us to live in ways that disproportionately tax and damage the earth’s finite resources. What we need now are bolder climate and environmental policies. That means transforming society and the economy, which we now will have an even clearer, more pressing opportunity to do.
It means using our emergency response to invest in local and sustainable business models that can uplift communities, build resiliency, and support a regenerative economy. More immediately, it means finding ways to stay safe and healthy without depending upon many of the disposable products imperiling our futures.
Ilana Cohen is a climate activist. On Twitter @ilanabana.