The environmental gains accrued over the last few months arising from COVID 19 lockdowns have seen significant improvement in air quality over the Earth. There’s no denying that the air is cleaner, plants & flowers are blooming, and wildlife is thriving in some of the undisturbed ecosystems. The question then becomes, how can we reset our lives, to achieve sustainable air quality post-COVID 19?
“The pandemic represents a rare but narrow window of opportunity to reflect, reimagine, and reset our world.”
Klaus Schwab, Founder, and Executive Chairman – World Economic Forum (13th June 2020)
This poignant statement by Professor Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum (WEF) explains the delicate tipping point that the world finds itself at.
At this point, many countries still have movement restrictions in place, battling to manage the spread of the virus. The majority are counting losses from the socio-economic devastation of the global health emergency caused by the COVID 19 pandemic. However, several cities are already putting in place measures to reopen their economies.
As economies are reopened, and we try to create a ”new normal” post-COVID 19, we must all reset to sustainable lifestyles. If this reset doesn’t happen, then the gains made in the environment will quickly be lost.
Better Air Quality… The Biggest Environmental Gain during the Pandemic
The most significant environmental gains recorded as a direct result of the lockdowns are improved air quality and reduced carbon emissions. While financial markets around the world crashed due to shutdowns in businesses, many people got to experience something rare in their cities – Fresh Air and Clear Skies.
By April this year, daily global CO2 emissions had fallen by an average of 17%, according to a study published in Nature Climate Change. Another greenhouse gas, Nitrogen Dioxide, is recorded to have reduced by as much as 60% over northern China, western Europe, and the U.S. in early 2020.
Nitrogen Dioxide is produced as a result of combustion, and typically gets released into the atmosphere from activities like:
- Vehicle exhausts,
- Industrial operations,
- Power plants, and
- Wastewater treatment plants.
Smog and Particulate Matter in the air (also known as dust) have reduced drastically over several cities. In India, for example, views of the Himalayas are now visible in cities such as Punjab, something that hadn’t been possible for decades.
Even the Taj Mahal in Agra looks almost ethereal in recent photos, against a backdrop of clear blue skies. Take a look at these photos for comparison.
Granted, the improvement in air quality as a result of the lockdowns is temporary and is likely to spike once the movement restrictions are lifted. China is already experiencing air pollution increase since they lifted lockdowns in May.
With growing momentum to resume ”normalcy” and revive businesses, some environmentalists and climate change experts are rightly concerned. As we enjoy the views of nature, mountain ranges, and clear city skylines, we need to ask ourselves the question:
How can we reset our lives post-COVID 19, so that we can continue to enjoy clean air and healthy lungs?
5 Ways to Reset our Lives post-COVID 19
To maintain some of the gains in air quality achieved in the last ±4 months, we need to shift to sustainable lifestyles and business practices. Implementing actions that lead to better air quality doesn’t just impact greenhouse gases.
A more immediate impact is on the vulnerability of populations to COVID 19 and respiratory infections as a direct result of poor air quality. Researchers found that the higher the level of air pollution in a city, the higher the infection rate of residents by COVID 19. Even the death toll from COVID 19 in the towns with high levels of air pollution was found to be higher, more on the science behind that here.
With this in mind, here are five ways we can reset our lives post-COVID 19 to achieve better air quality.
1. Rethink Transportation – Means, Infrastructure, and Policies:
With clear pandemic skies showing how significantly motorized traffic and industries contribute to polluted air, the need to reduce fossil fuel dependency is obvious. Adoption of innovative means of transport, ”clean” and ”smart” cars is the way to go. If we must use cars, let’s at least use clean-energy vehicles.
Because the switch to electric vehicles happens gradually, it’s worth thinking through alternative transport solutions that will reduce the exhaust emissions from petrol & diesel-powered vehicles.
- Policies that incentivize the use of public transport systems are one of the most popular ways of reducing motorized traffic in cities. What we want to achieve is fewer personal cars on the roads, because fewer cars mean fewer emissions from vehicle exhausts.
- Cities that put in place infrastructure for non-motorized traffic, and encourage residents to utilize it are bound to register improvements in air quality. Cycling lanes and pedestrian walkways that are safe and separate from main roads are vital in attracting people to switch to non-motorized traffic.
- The use of non-fossil fuel cars should be encouraged, meaning the use of clean-energy cars should be incentivized. Many countries have started on this already, supporting the sale of electric and hybrid vehicles.
Several others have set deadlines banning the sale of petrol & diesel-powered vehicles, including Norway (2025), the U.K. (2040), France 2040, Scotland (2032), Germany (2030), Ireland (2045), Netherlands (2030)
- On a personal level, the way to go is for people to find alternative means of transport that reduce the use of personal cars. Whether this means carpooling, using public transport, walking or cycling, is a personal choice. (All these bearing in mind necessary precautions of wearing face masks and social distancing.)
Walking and cycling where possible isn’t just suitable for the atmosphere, they’re good for your overall good health—consciously making them a lifestyle will significantly benefit you and the planet.
What Some Countries are Doing:
- Netherlands: They are the bicycling superpower of the world and even call themselves “the unrivaled No.1 bicycling nation” of the world. The cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands is highly developed and favored by many riders thanks to the relatively flat terrain of the country. Dutch cyclists are paid an extra $0.22 per kilometer cycled, tax-free, and riders are offered a tax-free bike purchase scheme.
- France: Paris is barring personal cars from the Rue de Rivoli during the pandemic, and is building separate cycling lanes along the routes of its three busiest metro lines. France has set a target of 2050 to become carbon neutral. It has set 2040 as the year when a ban on the sale of petrol and diesel-powered vehicles takes effect. Phasing out of oil and gas production will also take effect in 2040.
- Italy: Milan is adding 35km of cycling lanes, widening pavements to allow for foot traffic, and encouraging the use of scooters as alternatives to personal cars.
- Belgium: Brussels is also increasing the area dedicated to cyclists, creating an additional 40km of cycling paths in the city. This is also to encourage people away from public transport, as social-distancing restrictions come into play, restricting the number of people on them.
- Norway plans to switch to electric-powered vehicles and ban the sale of petrol or diesel-powered vehicles in the country by 2025. Norway is among several other European countries, taking deliberate steps to reduce air pollution from vehicle exhaust emissions. In 2017, Norway introduced a ”polluters pay” tax to discourage the sale of diesel or petrol vehicles. Over the last few years, the number of electric and hybrid vehicles has been increasing on Norway’s roads, as the deadline for the ban nears.
- Germany recently launched the first hydrogen-powered train, which runs by converting oxygen and hydrogen into electricity. This innovative train is much quieter than diesel-operated trains, emits only steam and water as by-products, and can do 1000km on a full tank. Find out more about this sustainable train here.
Find out more about other countries that offer financial incentives to cyclists to encourage them to switch to pedal power rather than fossil fuels. We also discovered the five most exciting cycling projects around the world, including Belgium’s bicycle path, where you cycle through the water.
2. Solar Farms and Rooftop Solar Systems
The use of solar as a clean energy source has been building momentum in both homes and industries around the world. Sunshine is readily available and easily harnessed into energy that can run lighting, domestic appliances, electronic devices
Solar farms operate on a large scale, like conventional power plants, with hundreds and thousands of panels on the farms to harness solar power.
Solar rooftop panels have become a highly popular way of accessing affordable, clean electricity in many homes, including rural areas in underdeveloped countries. In many underserved countries, solar power has been instrumental in eliminating poverty, supporting education, creating employment, and lots more.
What Some Countries are Doing:
Many sustainable businesses in Europe and the U.S. are installing solar panels in their offices or production outlets and factories, to reduce carbon emissions. As solar technology evolves and becomes more widely available, installation costs of panels are coming down rapidly.
Japan has a technology called floating solar power, where they have solar farms set up on dams. The largest floating solar farm in Japan is on the Yamakura Dam, which can power 5000 homes, and is estimated to save 8000 tons of CO2 emissions annually.
Situating solar panels on lakes, dams, and other water bodies has been found to make them much more efficient. Plus, it’s much easier to connect them to the power grid than wind farms, which tend to be distant and remote from the grid. You can find out more about how Japan became a world leader in floating solar power in this fascinating discussion here.
It’s’s not only Japan that’s realized the potential of floating solar panels: China, the U.K., and South Korea also have large capacity floating solar panels, among the largest in the world. Check out other countries in the top 100 here.
3. Switch to Hydropower and Reduce Fossil-fuel Dependence:
The push to achieve a carbon-neutral status and switch to non-fossil fuel power has gained momentum in the last decade, and for a good reason. Climate correction and improved air quality are greatly influenced by human activity, especially by the fossil fuels we use in daily living and industries.
Many countries are in the process of shutting down coal plants and switching their energy dependence to renewable energy sources. They include:
- France – by 2022
- The U.K. – by 2025
- Germany – by 2050
Where geothermal, wind, and water resources exist to enable harnessing of hydroelectric power, we feel that this should be maximized as much as safely possible. The impact that hydropower could have on air quality and carbon neutrality is enormous. Hydropower generates more electricity than all other renewable sources combined, and creates colossal carbon savings when it replaces fossil fuel sources.
Unlike other power sources like solar and wind, hydropower is not dependent on weather conditions and can be generated continuously. It’s, therefore, more reliable relatively.
What Some Countries have achieved in Use of Hydropower:
Several countries are still heavily dependent on oil, gas, and coal to run their industries, as well as for domestic use. Several nations have an abundance of renewable resources, which they harness for energy: rivers, lakes, wind, and even sunshine.
- Norway: Although Norway is an oil and gas exporter, 98% of its electricity comes from clean energy sources, predominantly hydropower. Norway is currently the biggest exporter of hydropower in Europe.
- Costa Rica is another country committed to using clean energy and becoming carbon neutral. 98% of the energy in Costa Rica is from renewable sources, including hydropower, geothermal, and wind power. This country has numerous rivers and dams, from which it generates its hydropower.
- Quebec produces so much hydropower, that the U.S. imports power from her. Quebec has an abundance of water resources, with about 500,000 lakes and 4500 rivers.
- Paraguay produces 100% of its electricity from renewable sources, primarily hydropower. The country can generate so much hydropower, that it exports over 70% of it to its neighbors like Argentina and Brazil. Paraguay is the world’s 4th largest exporter of hydropower.
- Germany, as part of its plan to be carbon neutral by 2050, is among several European countries that are shutting down their entire coal industries. Germany currently gets 35% of its electricity from renewables but plans to increase this capacity to 65% by 2030. Germany has also put in place a comprehensive plan for its economic recovery post-pandemic. This strategy will ensure that reviving the economy will not be at the expense of the environment. Read more on how Germany plans to achieve this here.
4. Reafforestation and Conservation of Tropical Rainforests:
Trees absorb CO2 from the air and are vital in helping to improve air quality and manage climate change. So when trees are cut down, the CO2 is released into the atmosphere, leading to global warming.
Any actions that save forests and promote reafforestation is as effective as removing 1000s of petrol/ diesel-powered cars from the road. The resultant carbon savings realized by preserving forests are enormous.
Deforestation has caused the loss of an estimated 1.3 million square kilometers of forest cover since 1990. These trees are being felled for paper products and making room for agriculture. The World Economic Forum states that protecting rainforests and avoiding further deforestation could cut CO2 emissions by as much as 4 billion tons per year.
How can you Get Involved in Forest Conservation?
- Plant more trees: If you are in an area where you can plant trees or even a simple garden, please do so. Even one tree makes a difference in improving air quality.
- Support tree-planting and reafforestation initiatives: If it isn’t possible for you to physically plant the trees, you could support the causes of nonprofits and conservation initiatives. Some nonprofits include the Forest Stewardship Council, CIFOR, and many others.
- Practice sustainable consumerism: Purchase sustainable products, ones that were not sourced in a way that was destructive to forests. The use of virgin paper for packaging and other needs means that trees have to be cut down to process the paper. Keep an eye out for sustainable brands that advocate the use of recycled paper.
Paper, soy, cocoa (and chocolate), and beef are other products that are produced at the expense of forests. Palm oil products have also gained notoriety of late because they involve massive clearing of tropical rainforests to create room for the palm tree plantations.
Resetting our lives post COVID 19 requires each of us to practice responsible shopping. We need to find out more about the production process of the goods we buy, to avoid those that were produced at the expense of forests.
- Use our guides on sustainable brands: In several of our posts, we cover sustainable brands that have an environmental footprint and are ethical in their practices too. We believe in supporting brands that care for our planet and are not just about sales and profits. For each brand, we share their sustainability footprint and ethics to help guide your buying decisions.
We think you will love these:
- Sustainable Denim – 7 Fair Trade Brands we Love;
- From Plastic to Fabric – 8 Sustainable Fashion Brands;
- 12 Best Stainless Steel Water Bottles;
- Reusable Coffee Cups – Our Top 11 Picks;
- Zero Waste Bathroom & Beauty Products
What Some Countries are Doing:
Costa Rica: Logging for plantations and construction reduced Costa Rica’s cover to a mere 26% of the country by 1983. It took concerted government action to bring about the restoration of the tropical rainforest. Actions such as:
- Restricting logging permits;
- Paying landowners to have their land as forest conservancies;
- Attracting international investment in eco-tourism initiatives; and
- Creating jobs that were dependent on healthy rainforests;
These efforts paid off, and the rate of deforestation dropped. In under four decades, Costa Rica’s forest cover has improved to 50% of the country. Today, Costa Rica is one of the most environmentally sustainable countries in the world, according to the World Energy Council report of 2019.
The citizens take forest conservation seriously and are actively involved in efforts to preserve and protect the rainforests. Take a look at some of these here.
Costa Rica’s story shows us that the right policies in forest conservation can make a big difference in climate change. It, therefore, needs the concerted involvement of state authorities, nonprofits, and individuals to implement and support conservation efforts.
5. Reduce Food Waste and adopt Zero Waste Sustainable Lifestyles:
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that ⅓ of the food produced globally goes to waste. This costs the world a whopping $2.6 trillion annually when all the resources that go into producing it are computed. Conversely, global hunger is on the rise, with even more people facing starvation during the COVID 19 crisis.
How does Food Waste Relate to Sustainable Air Quality?
Well, rotting food releases methane gas, a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more potent than CO2.
Methane released from food and green waste absorbs heat from the sun, trapping the heat in the atmosphere. It, therefore, contributes to global warming and climate change.
Overproduction is one reason food gets wasted. Sometimes, the reason food is wasted is simply that it isn’t attractive enough to buyers. Whatever the reason is for food waste, we all have a part to play to reduce or eliminate it.
In this season of lifestyle resetting post-COVID 19, Zero Waste is a lifestyle we all need to take up seriously. This is especially important when it comes to food. Here are a couple of steps we can take to achieve minimal food waste.
- For grocery shops and farmers” markets, it helps to identify outlets with whom you could partner, to take up excess or ”ugly” produce.
- Another popular approach is to have sales for the ”ugly” fruits & veggies. There are always people who don’t care what their fresh produce looks like, as long as it’s’s edible.
- If you aren’t already doing so, it would be a good idea to learn how to Compost your leftovers. Composting reduces methane emissions if this food ends up in landfills. The methane released from decomposing food waste contributes to global warming. You don’t even need much space to do it.
Want to learn how to do basic composting? Take a look at the guidelines given here. Better Homes and Gardens also offers an easy-to-follow guide on home composting.
- Love your leftovers and adopt a zero-waste lifestyle in your kitchen. If you aren’t sure how to go about it, we did a piece on Zero Waste for Kitchen Leftovers, and another fun guide on Zero Waste for Coffee and Tea Lovers that can guide you.
- Plan for your food purchases before going shopping, so that you buy just what you need for the family.
Full Harvest – Eliminating Food Waste
Full Harvest is a U.S. based company, who created this online market to buy or sell imperfect and surplus produce. They take up food that would be rejected by supermarkets and stores, and provide a platform where this food can be sold.
They also connect farmers to buyers who are not bothered by what the produce looks like. Take a look at their fantastic story to see what inspired Christine Moseley to start Full Harvest.
There’s more we can do to Reset our Lives and Maintain Good Air Quality
While the five actions we’ve listed above are significant ways to reset our lives post COVID 19, there’s more that can be done. Here’s quick run-down of what else can help reduce our carbon footprint, and improve air quality:
- Eat less red meat, or consider switching to a plant-based diet. Animal husbandry is one of the biggest culprits in the production of methane gas and nitrous oxide. The U.N. estimates that livestock farming is responsible for producing 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases, especially methane and nitrous oxide.
Nitrous oxide is particularly worrisome because it has 296 times more warming potential than CO2. Methane has 25 times more warming potential than CO2, ranking it 2nd in severity after Nitrous oxide.
- Consider what refrigerants are in use in your fridge. Depending on their chemical composition, CFCs and HFCs can warm the atmosphere 1000 – 9000 more than CO2.
- Buy local products – this reduces the carbon footprint created by imported goods.
- Opt to line-dry your clothes outside, especially when there’s sunny weather. It’s’s much more Eco friendly than running the clothes drier.
- Don’t forget to unplug your electronic devices when not in use.
- Let’s explore innovative building technologies that can replace cement. The cement industry is a massive contributor to global warming and is responsible for 5% of human-made global CO2 emissions. For every 1000kg of cement produced, it is estimated that 900kg of CO2 is released into the atmosphere.
What else do you think could be done to maintain the excellent air quality in our ”new normal” lives post-COVID 19? Please share with us in the comments section below: We would love to hear from you.