Last month, a report on the global environmental effects of the lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic showed some substantial results: According to a Nature Climate Change study, worldwide, emissions levels were down 17 percent in the spring. It projected a 4 to 7 percent overall decrease for 2020.
San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine said the county has seen similar drops in emissions as the shelter-in-place order has kept many residents from traveling. He said pollution and noise issues have also decreased substantially in the county.
But like climate experts worldwide, Pine said the changes are not permanent and will not have any lasting effect on reaching climate goals.
“It’s sobering to think about that, because in many ways we've shut down the economy, and it points out how dependent the economy is on fossil fuels,” Pine said.
While the emissions effects likely won’t last, Pine said the pandemic — and its environmental benefits — can serve as a wake-up call for climate action. While many jurisdictions struggled with preparedness, Pine said local and global governments took quick and decisive action to address the pandemic, which he hopes can be applied to tackling the climate crisis. Pine also said he hopes residents continue to embrace teleworking and biking as alternatives to driving to work, which dramatically decrease emissions and traffic.
The effects aren’t all positive, however. In some ways, Pine said, the pandemic has slowed climate action. Fewer people are taking public transportation because they’re worried about contracting the virus. And while local governments are stretched thin addressing the pandemic, fewer resources are going to environmental efforts.
“It’s harder for government agencies and climate advocates to continue to push the climate agenda while the focus is on addressing COVID-19,” Pine said.
City of Half Moon Bay Sustainability Analyst Veronika Vostinak agreed that the pandemic has forced her to change her focus. Prior to the pandemic, she was working on education around the city’s disposable foodware ordinance, but she said after restaurants were hit particularly hard due to closures and travel restrictions that effort took a backseat. The outreach she expected to conduct in March has been delayed, affecting the overall timeline for the adoption of the proposed ordinance by around four months.
Similarly, Vostinak said, the city’s Earth Day plans were delayed and refocused away from events and toward social media outreach. She said the city is renewing its focus and education around waste and cleaning products.
While she doesn’t yet have city data on emissions reductions, anecdotally, Vostinak said the number of trips people are taking has gone down substantially. Vostinak said she hopes residents will continue the practice of planning out and limiting how many trips they take on a regular basis. While sheltering in place isn’t a long-term practical solution, she said it can be a lesson for the future in areas such as transportation emissions and food waste.
“I think people are being a little bit more mindful of what they’re doing and how they’re doing it,” Vostinak said.