The clearer skies from the pandemic has caused related news about COVID’s positive environmental effects to dominate headlines. Unfortunately, this hides a deeper truth that involves several less obvious factors.
While an increase in PPE waste and household energy usage is expected, consumption of both single-use plastics and household electricity has increased at an unnecessarily fast pace. This issue is less discussed, however, since global populations have long gotten used to unsustainable norms of consumption. In a time when our daily movements are restricted, the need for greater convenience predictably leads to a surge in resource use, which we’ve quickly normalized.
We have a glimpse of what our future may look like. In Singapore, as people get used to the convenience of online shopping, 76 percent of surveyed locals admitted that they are likely to continue buying most of their items online, even after the pandemic.
On a larger scale—China, looking to restart its economy, is making electricity usage a marker for overall productivity. This has resulted in reports of Chinese cities making it compulsory for factories to use more electricity than they need, just to meet quotas for energy consumption.
If other societies follow the same pattern, then the outcome is clear. Any positive environmental impact we observe now will not be sustained, but negative impacts are likely to be—which will return our consumption habits to a worse state than before.
For decades, climate change has been the world’s most urgent issue; COVID-19 is only a reminder of how fast things can go badly. Life isn’t easy during a lockdown, but environmental action has always required conscious effort that goes beyond our comfort zones, and especially from those who can afford to be environmentally conscious during the current crisis.
It would be remiss of us not to use the lessons learned from the pandemic in our response to climate change. If returning back to normal is not an option, perhaps the best hope we can find in our present situation is this: There is no better time for change than now.