By Colorado Law Student Kevin Bernstein
Air pollution first fell in China as the country locked down in response to the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. As the pandemic spread, shutdowns spread across the globe, and air quality improved dramatically. These improvements were largely attributable to reductions in passenger air travel, reductions in industry operations, and far fewer commuters on the road. Everyone is anxious to get our economy back on track and return to a sense of normalcy. But normalcy means a rapid increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The massive disruption of the pandemic has opened a temporary window – providing a view to a cleaner world and the opportunity to ask ourselves, can we create a new normal?
The death toll of the coronavirus is tragic, even more so because many deaths were avoidable. But according to the World Health Organization, four million people die prematurely from ambient air pollution every single year. Knowing that significant amounts of pollutants can be avoided through changes in human behavior and existing technologies, aren’t those four million premature deaths a year equally tragic?
There are important efficiency lessons to be learned from the pandemic that could help shape a sustainable future. While not all office workers enjoy or can work from home, many employees and employers are seeing the benefits. Transitioning a portion of the office workforce to even a partial work-from-home workforce would have significant effects. In addition to a reduced number of commuters, employers could reduce their square footage of office space – saving money and decreasing their carbon footprint. Consolidating office space leaves more room for additional businesses and a diversified economy. Reduced commuter traffic in metropolitan areas means cleaner air for urban dwellers and the need for fewer heat-trapping parking lots which could be repurposed for public spaces.
Business travel accounts for about 16% of all American long-distance travel (National Household Travel Survey 2002). Modern video conferencing has allowed businesses to continue operations during the shutdowns, drastically reducing related travel. Similarly, remote learning across the entire education spectrum has highlighted the necessity of stable high-speed internet connections. Accordingly, one of the ways to capitalize on these socio-economic trends and strengthen the economy is to prioritize the development of reliable internet access across the entire country much like we brought electricity to America through the Rural Electric Administration. Even with reliable internet access, remote work/learning can be frustrating, but without a stable connection, it can quickly become impossible. Often hitting rural or lower-income families the hardest. Many schools and businesses will want to resume face to face meetings, but the pandemic has introduced virtual options to many who would have previously dismissed the idea out of hand.
But as air travel picks back up, now is a time to consider committing to buying carbon offsets. A minimal investment (e.g. ~$8.oo for a round trip flight from Denver to San Francisco) can help to internalize the cost to the environment of air travel (https://thegoodtraveler.org). Certain industries, like air travel, are harder to decarbonize. Therefore alternative, although imperfect, solutions allow individuals and corporations to achieve net-zero emissions. The Good Traveler is just one of many non-profits that offer carbon offsets, but they do so in an effective and easy to use way.
These are just a few examples of permanent behavioral changes that allow our economy to recover while improving public health and quality of life.
America’s energy mix continues to transform rapidly. Wind and solar power are becoming dominant sources of electricity. While renewable industries have suffered significant job losses due to the pandemic, solar and wind electricity generation in the U.S. outpaced coal electricity generation for multiple consecutive days in late April 2020. Abroad, the UK and Portugal have reported multiple weeks of zero coal-fired electricity generation (https://www.calvert.com/impact.php?post=as-utilities-enable-work-from-home-economy-renewable-energy-provides-reliable-power-&sku=35722). While these achievements are partially attributable to reduced energy demand from COVID-19 shutdowns, they demonstrate how much renewable energy has become integral to our grid and the possibility of a rapid transition from fossil fuels.
As intermittent sources of power such as solar and wind make up more of our energy mix, improved storage capabilities are paramount. And like most technology, as storage capacity increases, the cost will decrease – leading to a more robust electrical grid. And because battery storage projects have a relatively small physical footprint, they tend to be relatively simple to gain permit approval for development.
Distributed solar, battery storage, and microgrids provide the resilience needed for communities to rebound after natural disasters, which we know are becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change. While we have not witnessed significant electrical disruptions due to COVID-19, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico shows communities are more resilient when they can generate their power locally. Homes with rooftop solar power were able to begin reconstruction earlier because many of their other imminent needs were already taken care of and they didn’t have to wait for transmission lines to be rebuilt.
The benefits of choosing renewable energy are dramatic for grid stability and economics. These benefits compound as they enhance air quality by reducing the consumption of fossil fuels. Renewable energy and improved batteries pave the way for increased electric car ownership – providing a cheap reliable source of fuel for vehicles while providing zero-emission transportation choices for those who cannot or choose to not work remotely.
America is in a historic moment of awareness. We face a climate crisis, lost ground on environmental and public health protections, a massive federal deficit, significant economic hardship, systemic social injustice, and hardened political divisions that threaten our democracy. The demands we see on the streets to ensure equality under the law are inspiring disruptions to the status quo.
So the question remains – we know we can green our economic comeback, but will we?
Kevin Bernstein is a rising 2L at Colorado Law