UC Davis professors speak to environmental changes COVID-19 pandemic has brought and will bring

UC Davis professors speak to environmental changes COVID-19 pandemic has brought and will bring

Photo Credits: Quinn Spooner / Aggie. The Plant and Environmental Sciences building at UC Davis.

Though COVID-19 has presented environmental upticks, many caution against celebration

One lens the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic has been analyzed through is that of the environmental side effects resulting from lockdown measures across the globe in attempts to contain and prevent the spread of the virus. 

There was a 50% reduction in nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide in China due to the closing of industries and factories, according to Scott Collis, an atmospheric scientist at Argonne National Laboratory. In the U.S., some regions are seeing nitrogen dioxide levels lower by as much as 30% compared to the levels before lockdown. In Rome, the air pollution was 49% lower between mid-March and mid-April this year than in 2019. 

These improvements, however, are very much temporary — given that they are simply the direct results of economies the world over largely shut down. The United Nations and scholars around the world, however, are arguing that the pandemic should act as a “wake-up call” and serve as an opportunity to make permanent changes to the global economy in support of the environment. 

UC Davis’ Frances Moore, a professor from the Department of Environmental Science and Policy, agrees with this idea, saying these environmental shifts are not evidence of sustained environmental progress, but instead pose a potential threat to the climate as the world moves forward.

“We shouldn’t mistake what’s going on now with environmental progress,” Moore said. “It’s temporary, and associated with extremely bad things for many people. I think the bigger environmental issue is that when societies are stressed […] that is not an environment in which you make advances on public good issues like climate change, like biodiversity issues.”

As countries continue to navigate the pandemic and the subsequent economic downturn, Moore warns that climate change progress has the potential to be pushed to the sidelines. She said, however, that this could be an opportunity for progress to be made toward protecting the climate and biodiversity if the government turns its attention to green policies. 

“In very, very bad economic downturns, historically, the government has done a lot of investing,” Moore said. “[That] potential could be directed toward green infrastructure and the kind of big projects that we need to improve our grid, our transportation infrastructure, improve our housing stock to make it compatible with a low-carbon economy. I think that’s where you see potential. You have to have political will and interest in doing that and directing the funds in that way.”

Another important change moving forward which would support the environment is the scaling back of developmental activities. UC Davis Professor and Chair of the Department of Environmental Science and Policy Edwin Grosholz noted that, amid the pandemic, development and the need for developmental activities have dramatically decreased, which contributes to the positive changes seen in air and water quality. 

Grosholz hopes that some of this positive change will be maintained, but said it will be difficult.

“It’s going to be hard for humans to kind of hold back from entering into wilder areas,” Grosholz said. “Our continual movement into wild areas will continue to push the development of diseases like this”

Moving further into animal habitats inherently raises the risk of crossover between animal and human communities, according to Groscholz. This is thought to be how COVID-19 originally began spreading — it is also a primary way other viruses have spread. A decrease in the speed at which humans race to develop and expand, however, will leave more of the natural environments, especially at the coast, less affected, which helps protect the biodiversity in those areas. 

The pandemic has also exposed the ways transportation can be adjusted to be more environmentally friendly. One of the biggest reasons for the cleaner air and water currently seen around the world is due to the decrease in car, train and bus travel, as a majority of the world works from home. 

Dr. Susan Handy, another UC Davis professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy, noted that it is a distinct possibility that as shelter-in-place orders are lifted, people may still be hesitant to return to public transportation, given the close quarters associated with this type of travel. Resistance to public transportation could mean more car travel — or, as she says she hopes, an uptick in bike commuting.

“Biking had a lot more potential than we’ve taken advantage of,” Handy said. “Especially if cities are making conditions more comfortable for biking by widening bike lanes [and] putting in bike lanes, I think people are going to feel a lot more comfortable doing it.”

Handy said that amid the lockdowns, many people are walking and biking more, leading some governments to open more streets up for use by pedestrians and bikers. She is hopeful that these moves will be permanent, or at least lead to walking and biking as more accessible forms of commuting moving forward.

Potentially even more impactful, she said, could be a transition toward telecommuting on a wider scale, even as in-person gatherings begin to occur again.

“Telecommuting has been an idea that’s been around for decades and has been an idea that just hasn’t caught on the way planners hoped it might,” Handy said. “But now that so many of us are doing it and learning how to do it and seeing that it works and companies are seeing that yes, in fact, their employees can still be productive [working from home], I think that’s something where we are going to see some permanent change.”

An increase in telecommuting could decrease the use of public transit, the amount of vehicles on the road and business air travel moving forward. 

As the economy reopens and the world begins to see some normalcy after the coronavirus pandemic, it will also see an opportunity for substantial environmental change, if some of these practices — and many others — are considered. 

Handy said she believes right now is an important moment to prioritize the environment as we begin to move forward: “I think we have a really important opportunity right now [to] take advantage of this moment in time to make some permanent physical changes to cities.”

Written by: Katie DeBenedetti — features@theaggie.org