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COVID-19 & Climate Change: Lessons Learned

By Lauren Excell

What may have been buried in the negative news are some of the positive changes we’ve seen in our environment as a result of quarantine. Nitrogen dioxide levels over China have plummeted as production was halted and cars and trucks were kept off the roads. The fish and swans have returned to the canals of Venice and the water is clear enough to see to the bottom because the boats have been docked. I’ll be the first to admit that quarantine and self-isolation is hard on everyone financially and emotionally, and these facts don’t diminish that. But there may be lessons that we can learn moving forward for how we can better coexist with our environment.

It’s important to understand that reducing the amount of transportation and electricity usage is the most impactful way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that result from the combustion of fossil fuels. If every individual, company, and government makes a small adjustment to reduce their emissions, the compounding effects can cause a great change. There are several ways we can reduce transportation and electricity usage without halting our economy or reducing our quality of life. Here are a few that I thought of.

First, drive less and walk or bike more. Most of us haven’t left our houses in several days and won’t for the next few weeks. Beyond transporting cargo (read: groceries), do we really need our cars to get everywhere we want to go? For those of us living in cities and suburbs, biking and walking can get us where we need to go without emitting the carbon dioxide that a car ride would have. Plus, the social and psychological benefits of physical activity are undeniable.

Second, eat locally, produce locally. International trade has been shut down by our governments to protect against the transmission of the virus. We haven’t had our usual trade of goods and food with other countries; as this continues, manufacturing and food production will be moved back to America to make up for this deficiency. By growing our food and manufacturing our goods closer to where they are consumed, we can create a more reliable supply chain and cut out the thousands of miles of transportation that emit megatons of greenhouse gases daily. Imagine how many emissions we can prevent by continuing this after the crisis passes. This would also support our local economies, create new jobs, and reduce future health risks. Better yet, you can grow food in your own garden and cook at home! You’ll save money and reduce your carbon footprint.

Third, reduce your amount of international travel. The sudden changes to online classes and working from home has shown us that we have the ingenuity and infrastructure to do work locally. To me, this shows that many of the business trips taken weekly by workers across the world can be done via Zoom meetings. If we have the capability, we should be socially responsible even after this crisis and continue to refrain from international travel as much as possible. While there may not be a personal health risk in a few months from now, there will still be an environmental health risk. As much as we owe it to each other to be socially responsible, we owe it to the Earth.

As life returns to normal after this crisis, consider making a new normal for yourself. This new normal could involve biking or taking the bus to work instead of driving your car, buying from local farmers instead of processed food at the grocery store, or taking a vacation closer to home instead of flying somewhere far away. If we all make a little change, it can make a big difference.

DISCLAIMER: These are general, qualitative observations that I’ve made during this crisis. This advice is only one persons opinion based on what I have observed in the news and learned in class. If you would like to discuss more, feel free to email

For additional information, please refer to these articles and I’d also recommend that people stay up to date on Bloomberg for supply chain/economics and look through the data on NASA Earth and the EIA for more environmental impacts!

“Airborne Nitrogen Dioxide Plummets Over China”

“Here’s what a coronavirus-like response to the climate crisis would look like” by Sammy Roth

“The Effects of COVID-19 Will Ripple through Food Systems” by Laura Poppick

“Virus Disruptions May Cause 20% Cargo Decline at U.S. Ports” by Ryan Beene

Lauren Excell

Lauren is currently in T&M Class XXIV, a senior in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and will be entering a Civil Engineering Ph.D. program in the Fall

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