As businesses and schools shuttered in March 2020, millions stopped commuting to work. Fewer emissions allowed many city dwellers to once again see the stars. Stories broke across the globe of animals flourishing: dolphins reclaiming Turkey’s Bosphorus Strait, mountain lions expanding beyond their typical habitat and pink flamingos growing in population. Nature was healing, the mantra went.
Although certain ecosystems were indeed benefitting from the COVID-19 pandemic’s temporary freeze on industry, it quickly became apparent that the belief that we were genuinely repairing our environment was factually inaccurate. Most of the environmental improvements that occurred during the pandemic were not the result of any deliberate action from a government or private entity to protect the environment but simply a consequence of lockdowns and restrictions related to the pandemic. Now is the time to build on those pandemic-caused sustainability gains with deliberate, strong environmental action that pushes us toward the sustainable world we hope to live in down the road.
The pandemic presents a great opportunity to reevaluate how we approach environmental protection and sustainable living, as the disruption to everyday life forces us to look at our lives from a different perspective. An independent poll commissioned by the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation found that six in 10 Americans have finally had the chance to explore the parks and trails in their communities during their extended time at home and have since developed a greater appreciation for nature.
Many companies have also taken advantage of the disruptions caused by the pandemic to start reevaluating their standard operating methods by finding new ways that improve efficiency and eliminate waste. Communications and workspace technologies in particular have proven themselves capable of supporting full-scale virtual operations, making centralized, commuter-dependent workplaces and frequent business-related travel less essential. Companies, such as Facebook and Zillow, have even announced that their employees can continue working remotely after public safety restrictions are lifted. Others have announced plans to move away from the use of traditional office spaces in favor of smaller satellite offices with shorter commute times. Actions like these could have a huge impact on carbon emissions; they quite literally take tens of thousands of cars off the road each day, not to mention the energy savings of no longer heating or cooling massive corporate buildings that are unoccupied for more than half the day.
If we want to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, which include a warming cap of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial standards, minimizing biodiversity losses and protecting water basins, we cannot afford to take a year-long hiatus from intentional environmental protection efforts. Yet in many ways, we have. Social distancing guidelines halted many environmental projects, and decreased revenue forced many organizations to reduce the scope of their actions.
Conservation-related job and internship opportunities have fallen by an estimated 50% as a result of the pandemic.
It appears that most businesses and many individuals intend to return to a pre-pandemic status quo. However, going back to our old ways will cause significant problems in the future. According to epidemiologists, the rate at which contagious diseases have emerged over the past few decades has increased astronomically because of biodiversity loss and changes to local environments. At least one-third of newly discovered animal-borne contagions were directly attributable to deforestation, development and other human activities.
Before our heavily localized pandemic lifestyles fade away, it is important to reflect on the changes that we’ve undergone and the ways in which we’ve become greener and find ways to incorporate that into our post-pandemic lives. Whether it’s participating in virtual classes from home rather than driving to a coffee shop across town for class, contributing to a community garden or adjusting the thermostat when you leave for the day, every little bit helps. Although the pandemic has forced an increase in the use of disposable PPE, takeout containers and extra layers of packaging, we must recognize this fact and seek other forms of waste reduction that we have not utilized in the past. Avoiding unnecessary fast fashion purchases, not printing lengthy academic handouts and buying local whenever possible to minimize the distance our purchases travel are all simple ways we can reduce our climate impacts. College campuses have long been large catalysts for change, so we must engage that responsibility. If we don’t, no one will.
In order to prevent the worst effects of climate change, we need to build on our commitment to sustainability on both institutional and individual levels. Businesses must develop tangible plans to reduce and eventually neutralize their environmental impacts, regardless of their size or sector. Every individual and business has a great opportunity to contribute to sustainable action through climate-considerate spending. We must favor companies that have taken action to improve our world or built their businesses around sustainability over companies that have resisted sustainability for short-term profits. Each dollar we spend at an environmentally conscious company allows it to continue, and even expand, its sustainability work. Unsustainable businesses that start losing market shares and revenue to sustainable businesses may reflect on this and conclude that the sustainable way forward is truly the only way forward.
We must come to terms with the fact that our generation will decide what the world will look like in the future and consider the threat of climate change not as a distant problem but as a harsh reality that we, and our children and our grandchildren, will face every day. We must act, not with lukewarm acceptance of politically diluted guidelines, but with wholehearted commitments that will develop the future world we wish for our descendants to inherit. Waiting five, 10 or 20 years to fully embrace the necessary changes will only make it harder to mitigate the effects of climate change. There is no better time to reflect and adopt sustainably in our home and work lives than during a pandemic that has forced us to change nearly every other aspect of our lives.
Nathan Sonnenfeld is a first-year student in the McDonough School of Business.