The Pandemic Has Illuminated That We Can Change—And for the Sake of the Planet, We Must

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Behavior changes that would benefit the environment have long been framed in the negative and often waved off as impossible: we can't drive our cars, we can't use plastic, we can't eat as much meat. But, amid the pandemic, people canceled vacations, worked from home, and visited their doctors virtually, proving that habits are changeable, which stands to be meaningful in the fight against climate change—and now there's data to support its efficacy: Global carbon dioxide emissions dropped an average of 7 percent in 2020, according to researchers, and NASA found that nitrogen dioxide concentrations dropped by nearly 20 percent.

Experts In This Article
  • Christoph Keller, PhD, Christoph Keller, PhD, is a senior scientist at NASA.
  • Piers Forster, PhD, Piers Forster, PhD, is a professor of climate physics at the University of Leeds.
  • Tensie Whelan, Tensie Whelan is the director of New York University's Center for Sustainable Business.

While these drops are significant, their effects alone won't save us from the climate crisis. What does hold the power to help in a meaningful, enduring way, though, is to commit to ongoing change. "People have been talking about working more digitally and doing things online for a long time. And people said, 'Yeah, we aren't going to go that way because it's slow and it's challenging,'" says Piers Forster, PhD, a professor of climate physics at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. But when the pandemic hit? "People changed pretty much instantly," he says. And, as noted by those aforementioned statistics, the effect of this forced lifestyle shift during lockdown has led to some immediate progress toward reaching carbon neutrality.

Furthermore, according to Christoph Keller, PhD, a senior scientist at NASA, the environmentally positive side effects of the pandemic demonstrate the role that individual choices make when it comes to protecting against climate change, notably when looking at air pollution shifts throughout 2020 and 2021.

"If you decide not to drive, that will have an immediate benefit to your local environment. If it's just a couple of people who do that, then that will already help." —Christoph Keller, PhD

"This was just really a natural experiment in how much air pollution is coming from traffic and human activities versus natural sources of air pollution or energy generation," Dr. Keller says. "In satellites, we can see very clearly that in one city, air pollution has gone down because it had strict lockdowns and in another city that didn't have strict lockdowns and people were still moving around, air pollution didn't go down. When it comes to air pollution, if you decide not to drive, that will have an immediate benefit to your local environment. If it's just a couple of people who do that, then that will already help."

While sustainable lifestyle shifts during the pandemic are certainly effective, the power they hold in influencing bigger industries that pose a stronger threat to the environment is also crucial and perhaps more meaningful. Dr. Forster says pandemic behavior changes signal to politicians and industry leaders that consumers are able and willing to make changes for the collective benefit. "We each have to completely transform our economy of burning oil and gas," he says "We have to change the engineering. We have to design our homes differently and our cars differently."

With the right incentives in place, then, it stands to reason that folks would welcome a change of habits for the future of the planet, just as they did to protect themselves and others from the threat of COVID-19. 

Sustainable lifestyle shifts during the pandemic can influence future production

The uptick in sustainable lifestyle shifts during the pandemic extends beyond flying and driving less—we're also wasting less, says Tensie Whelan, director of New York University's Stern Center for Sustainable Business.

"We had this trend happening prior to the pandemic where we saw a really significant growth in demand for and concern about sustainability by consumers," says Whelan. "The pandemic has accelerated it because what people have seen with COVID is how we're all at risk and how one issue has exponential, cataclysmic impacts across the entire system. And it's becoming clear to people that climate change is going to do the same thing."

Data backs up this claim, too: In mid-March 2020, there was a spike in purchases of packaged goods as people stocked up their supplies of non-perishable foods and other necessities at the beginning of lockdown. At that point, the sale of sustainability-marketed products outpaced that of conventional products, according to an analysis by Whelan and senior scholar at NYU's Stern Center for Sustainable Business Randi Kronthal-Sacco. Waste reduction by means of shopping secondhand also saw a major resurgence, they report. Last year, secondhand online retailer ThreadUp reported it saw steady 20-percent growth since March 2020, and online furniture resale company AptDeco saw a threefold increase in its number of listings and sales between May and December.

These consumer habits have the power to drive the market because as values-aligned shopping and interest in sustainability increase, brands will have little choice but to jump onboard and provide sustainable options. In 2021, for example, personal-care brand Love Beauty Planet and home cleaning brand Grove Co. launched plastic-free refillable lines at Target. "Brands are trying to avoid the risk of problematic products in their ecosystem," says Whelan. "They want to take advantage and support that growing demand by consumers."

The takeaway? Individual choices absolutely matter in the fight against climate change.

The impact of individual actions on climate change is often dismissed, but that's clearly a miss. While it's true that we can't save the planet by working from home (which isn't an option for many) or by buying refillable plastic-free soap, we can each contribute to lowering waste and air pollution rates to see immediate returns. And we can each influence companies to strike meaningful, bigger change with our buying power.

So, while putting pressure on elected officials to make regulations that lead us to carbon neutrality, know that you're also making a difference as you ride your bike and shop with your reusable tote. While taking on the climate crisis will surely require hard work, if the past pandemic year has taught us anything, it's that we're resilient and capable of doing hard things. And when it comes to shifting certain habits to a magnitude that once seemed unfathomable, it's clear that the bigger challenge may not being striking change in the first place but staying the course.

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