The more we continue to treat the environment as if it has infinite resources, the less time we have to fix it

Individual emissions from cars and planes may have gone down for a brief period through the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it wasn’t long enough for us to mitigate the CO2 in our environment. In May of 2020, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere still moved up to around 418 parts per million—which was the highest ever recorded in human history.

Even with the pandemic locking us down and keeping us at home, we only experienced a tiny drop (daily emissions were about 17 percent below last year’s) in the overall concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. This begs the question: if a health crisis that drove one of the most dramatic drops in CO2 emissions can’t regulate the carbon in our environment, then what can?

Emissions stand the test of time

Climate change wasn’t caused in a month and it can’t be fixed in that amount of time either. It’s the cumulative emissions (CO2 and methane) of past decades tacking onto the emissions of today that add up.

When emissions dropped 17 percent at the start of the pandemic, it was during the most restrictive worldwide lockdowns, and it wasn’t for long enough. Scientists say that we could have only reduced our emissions enough if we saw a 20 percent reduction for the whole year, where every month of the year looked like the extreme lockdowns of April 2020.

In April, we saw a 75 percent drop in plane emissions, which only made up three percent of the CO2 emissions problem, and a 50 percent drop in vehicle emissions, which had a larger effect of six megatons of CO2 being mitigated each day. Still, 17 percent means that we continued to use more than 80 percent of our average CO2 consumption. Although we reverted to 2006 carbon emissions, experts say we need to get back to at least the 1990s emissions within a decade to mitigate the worst of climate change.

What didn’t happen during the lockdowns is we didn’t stop cutting down trees, extracting fossil fuels, or participating in industrial-scale agriculture

naturePhoto by Zach Betten on UnsplashLearning from the pandemic

A positive that came from the pandemic was knowledge. We dug deeper and were able to understand how our home production, food production and overall consumerist behaviours affected our planet’s health. The benefit from the pandemic came from a global realization: not only would changing our behaviours positively impact our planet, but it would greatly increase our quality of life.

When shops, restaurants and workplaces shut down in-person operations, we went back to what we know best—we went back to nature. Natural spaces became a comfort to those during lockdown, as more than 40 percent of people said that nature, wildlife and visiting local green spaces became more important to their well-being since restrictions began. This shift was something that stuck beyond initial closures and has remained stable throughout the last two years.

Along with wanting to lift our spirits, we reconnected with nature to regain a sense of self and purpose. This stretched into exploring what food we could produce ourselves at home and a new era of gardening was born. Fifty-one percent of Canadians began growing at least one type of fruit or vegetable in their homes in 2020, and out of those, nearly one in five were complete beginners. A year later and the gardening trend was still on the rise, which came from the response to food shortages, food safety, sustainability and nutrition, rising prices, and the continual realization that our food system is fragile.

Although it isn’t recognized in the emission numbers—yet—these slow changes in our lifestyles are what stick. It doesn’t take extreme, immediate change to make a difference—that’s not achievable or sustainable. We aren’t able to briefly stop our “bad habits” and then resume when the coast looks clear. Climate change is, and always will be, lurking in the background unless we make permanent changes to our lifestyles.

Stabilizing our global system starts slowly and it starts within our communities— by keeping food and products local, spending more time outside rather than consuming television, resources and energy, and gaining a greater understanding of our ongoing relationship with the natural world, its resources, and how we can sustainably coexist well into the future.