June 23, 2020

SMITH | Please Don’t Act Like COVID-19 is Automatically Good for the Environment

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As we search for good news amid the COVID-19 pandemic, one common theme has been the improved air quality and positive environmental impacts of quarantine. Emissions in China alone temporarily dropped by a quarter, and New York City carbon dioxide emissions also decreased as it became a hotspot for the virus.

However, these drops are fleeting, as they are merely a result of the worldwide shutdowns, travel restrictions, etc. Levels of CO2 will rise as we return to life as it was before the virus. Stalling economic activity in no way set the proper stage for long-term environmental improvement. The ideal decarbonised, sustainable economy is not one in which there is widespread unemployment and no travel. The current state of our society is in no way what environmentalists have been advocating for, despite claims by some conservatives that the current economic crisis is a “preview” for the Green New Deal. Coronavirus has generated tons of waste, in the form of masks, other disposable personal protective equipment and medical waste. In my hometown, the recycling program has been put on pause until further notice, and there are cities across the country doing the same. The availability of takeout only at restaurants means that more disposable packaging waste is being created. And while I by no means view the precautions being taken as unnecessary, the waste is collateral damage in our fight against this disease that cannot be ignored.

What’s more, coronavirus (understandably) “distracts” from environmental issues. We humans struggle with long term thinking, and when faced with an immediate crisis like this pandemic, climate change doesn’t seem quite as pressing. The Cop26 Climate Talks were postponed to 2021, and the already limited funding available for environmental causes is being further cut. I don’t mean to discount the people and the disease which desperately need our attention right now, but I do take offense at people who have written off climate change amidst coronavirus, or who even view it as a positive for the environment. Environmental bills and laws are being ignored. Heck, the Trump administration has allowed companies to break already existing pollution laws during the pandemic.

If there’s one thing this pandemic has made clear, it’s how interconnected so many facets of our lives are. From the perspective of the Black Lives Matter movement, environmental racism exists and just like coronavirus has been disproportionately affecting communities of color, as do the negative effects of climate change and pollution. And as speculation over what life will be life like as coronavirus recedes, it’s certainly a hope of mine that this pandemic will incite change in a number of broken systems.

At times it certainly feels like the world has been put on pause, and for those anxiously awaiting pre-enroll and a final decision about the fall semester, a lot of things have been. However, climate change and other environmental issues are not paused right now, and they have not gone away. And while we still don’t exactly know the extent of COVID-19’s effects because we are still in the middle of it, we can’t allow ourselves to be blinded by our masks.

Emma Smith is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at esmith@cornellsun.com. Emmpathy appears every other Wednesday this summer.