There is no environmental ‘silver lining’ to COVID-19 - only choices for a more equitable and sustainable future

Climate disruption, environmental destruction, and the current COVID-19 pandemic are complex problems that require multi-pronged solutions. During this unprecedented time, what can we collectively learn? How do decisions taken today alter the future trajectory of our society and our planet?

By Emmay Mah, Executive Director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) 

If like me you have a deep love of nature, you may have smiled at the recent images and videos of wildlife making its way into uncharacteristically still, human-dominated habitats. It’s natural to find joy in such things. Along with the videos of animals in town and city streets, we’re seeing reports of a decrease in air pollution in some cities. For many, this prompts questions about the ecological impacts of reduced human activity as people self-isolate.

However, we need to take care not to overemphasize this ‘silver lining’ for the planet. Applying a singular environmental lens to a multi-dimensional problem can hinder our critical analysis and obligation to ask important questions about responsibility, equity, and impact of choices – especially those taken by our governments. Likewise, excluding an ecological analysis when assessing crisis impacts and response measures is irresponsible and dangerous.

Climate disruption, environmental destruction, and the current COVID-19 pandemic are complex problems that require multi-pronged solutions. These pose existential threats that impact all of us, and yet the way their impacts are experienced vary considerably among individuals, communities and regions.

In the context of more frequent extreme weather events such as heat waves and floods, it is the most vulnerable members of our society who are at greatest risk – including those living with underlying chronic conditions, in precarious housing or employment situations, with low or no incomes, and who experience social marginalization and discrimination. In Toronto, for example, this could be a senior on a fixed income, living in a high-rise building with no air conditioning, and without a support system in place when the next heat wave comes.

While it’s far too early to project the medium-term impacts of COVID-19 with precision, this pandemic is already highlighting the fault lines of inequality that run through society – both locally and globally. Those who have access to affordable healthcare, stable and adequate housing, an economic safety net, and a mutual support network will fare better than those who do not, just as they would in a climate-related crisis.

It is likely that decreased economic activity due to COVID-19 will result in reduced greenhouse gas emissions for a period of time, like the last global recession. However, if this hypothesis plays out, what will it tell us? With over a million people contracting the virus, and local economies and livelihoods under threat, this hardly presents a replicable solution. There is nothing in this low-emissions scenario that environmentalists can, or would want to, take credit for. And like in the past, fossil fuel pollution will return to previous levels, and then continue to increase, unless we take major steps to change that.

So is there an ecological silver lining? Perhaps it’s time to ask a different question. During this unprecedented time, what can we collectively learn? How do decisions taken today alter the future trajectory of our society?

When I imagine a time after the worst of the COVID-19 has passed, here’s what I hope we will have collectively learned:

· Well-resourced, equitable, and adaptable public services and institutions are critical – there is no future scenario where we will need thinner social safety nets or less comprehensive public health programs. We have gained greater insight on how effective our public infrastructure is in responding to an evolving context, getting resources and support to those most in need, and providing support to workers delivering essential frontline services and those working behind the scenes.

· Frontline community services, programs and spaces are foundational social and physical infrastructure. Community agencies (their staff, programs, services), and the physical space and infrastructure provided by community hubs, are vital assets that can be redeployed in times of crisis to deliver local support for residents. We have recognized that this requires greater, long-term investment before - and after - crisis strikes.

· Grassroots, mutual-aid and support networks play a powerful role in community response and care initiatives, especially in looking after the physical and mental wellbeing of vulnerable community members. We now know that groups that connect people – whether they are faith, interest, neighbourhood or building-based – can mobilize and significantly increase local resilience in emergencies. Empowered residents with clear roles and tools, who know their neighbours and neighbourhoods, are capable of extraordinary things.

· Civil society ‘watchdogs’ are needed to safeguard important social and environmental protections during a crisis, preventing opportunistic ‘interests’ from undermining community health and safety, and tenants’ and workers’ rights. In the environmental sector, corporate lobby efforts have sought to roll-back regulations on wasteful practices and products, producer responsibility, and air and water quality – by preying on fear rather than upholding public health and safety guidelines. This has been brought to light through vigilant monitoring and intervention by civil society organizations.

· People can be put over profit. Large corporations have much more leeway to make different choices, and reorient resources, than they have been letting on. Behind local businesses are people who can act with compassion and extend their resources to their local communities, even when their own livelihoods are at risk. We have learned (again) that government aid to the private sector must come with transparent and enforceable terms and conditions.

· Political leaders can mobilize large-scale resources to build a more resilient society and positive legacy. Government aid packages present an unprecedented opportunity to support people in a time of crisis, while also advancing (and not undermining) other important longer-term goals such as reducing inequality and taking climate action. We have learned that the choices political leaders make – bailing out oil and gas companies v.s. providing direct support to industry workers and their families, and offering retraining for low-carbon jobs – have a profound impact on our society long after the crisis has passed.

When we emerge from a post COVID-19 world, we should not seek to return to ‘business as usual’ – this is neither feasible nor desirable. The collective choices that we take now, especially those taken by our political representatives, are shaping the future trajectory of our society. These actions are altering our perspective about what is possible when entire societies are impacted by, and mobilize around, an existential threat. We are witnessing that governments, businesses, communities and individuals are acting in extraordinary ways that would be considered unfeasible during ‘ordinary times’. No longer can we say that change at all these levels is not possible.

What we are learning about our ability to mobilize massive resources, repurpose and reorient our social and physical infrastructure, and empower people in communities to strengthen grassroots support systems, must be applied to addressing the most pressing social and ecological issues of our day. I’m hopeful that we are now a step closer to envisioning how we can execute an unprecedented, large-scale intervention – call it a Green New Deal if you like – to reverse the trend of growing inequality and rapidly transition our society to a zero-carbon economy. While we are responding to a global pandemic, we must also prepare for the future that comes after.