EDITORIAL

A very different kind of Earth Day

NO one predicted today’s 50th anniversary of Earth Day would be marked with the planet showing its capability to bounce back. Photographs from space show air pollution falling dramatically around the world. The fouled waters of the famous canals of Venice, Italy, have cleared and fish can be seen swimming.

Unfortunately, it took a global tragedy. The encouraging hints of an environmental turnaround are happening only because the coronovirus pandemic has forced many people to park their fossil-fuelled vehicles, has grounded airlines, and has closed businesses and industries.

As nice as it is to see the planet show flickers of improved health, it would be irresponsible to suggest the environmental benefits of the pandemic outweigh the huge costs to the economy and the human costs to the loved ones of COVID-19 casualties. Some people have been so crass, however, including the 300,000 people who liked the tweet “Coronavirus is Earth’s vaccine. We’re the virus.”

But even those of us who don’t believe humanity is a virus to be exterminated can be intrigued by the rapid reduction in planetary pollution resulting from this sudden slowdown of human activity.

Of course, people didn’t park their vehicles for the good of the planet; they’re acting out of selfinterest, following advice to stay home in order to keep away from possible contagion. But regardless of the motivation for keeping vehicles in driveways, the dramatic drop in their emissions provides an unexpected global experiment that shows people hold the keys, literally, to reducing pollution.

It’s encouraging to speculate that even after the coronavirus threat has abated and society returns to some semblance of normality, fewer people might drive to work and school every day because the forced isolation of the pandemic showed that modern technology allows them to work and study productively without being physically present with other people.

It’s been a big change for many people, but a heartening result of the pandemic tumult is the near-unanimous willingness of people to accept big changes. We’re undergoing personal hardships and forfeiting rights and freedoms because we trust the public-health officials who say it’s necessary.

What if our next universal target was climate change? What if a majority of citizens around the globe expanded the current we’re-all-in-thistogether attitude and adjusted their lifestyles to allow countries to meet their climate-change targets?

For some people, it might mean rethinking consumer- focused lifestyles for a better balance of work and family life that is also kinder to the environment.

The public buy-in during this pandemic hinges on two factors: personal interest, and adept leadership. People are accepting the leadership of public-health officials and making radical changes, such as forgoing their social activities, because they don’t want to contract the virus and endanger the health of themselves and their family and friends.

The challenge is to get people equally concerned about the health of the planet, which would let governments impose necessary measures. Governments have the tools — adjusting taxation, crafting laws, subsizing green initiatives — to adjust citizen behaviour to meet climate objectives. The fear among political leaders has long been that the tough measures necessary to mitigate climate change would make their governments unpopular and soon ejected from office.

The public acceptance of the extreme restrictions during the pandemic crackdown offers a glimmer of hope that citizens will accept radical economic changes they believe are necessary.

As economies are rebooted, it’s an opportunity for governments to keep the momentum rolling and apply a pandemic-level of urgency to introducing measures to stabilize the climate. We’ve shown we can change when it matters. And the planet does, indeed, matter.

The coronavirus shutdown has led to a decrease in vehicle emissions.

MARK J. TERRILL / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES