The streets are quiet. With offices closed and communities dark under the lingering threat of the coronavirus, daily commutes across the country have ground to a halt. The roads are empty; our cities quiet but for socially-distanced foot traffic and the lone, occasional vehicle. It’s eerie, but the openness also feels almost like a breath of fresh air in the springtime. Despite these frightening circumstances, the quiet compels us to wonder -- would the environment be better off if across the world, working remotely became the norm?
Over the last few weeks, cities have changed in ways that most people wouldn’t have thought possible before COVID-19 began. In LA, the infamous traffic gridlock has all but disappeared as more citizens began working remotely. According to reports from NPR, the city has seen 59 percent fewer accidents since the municipal government ordered people to self-isolate and limit travel to essential trips. The benefit to the local environment has been equally profound. Reporters for Curbed noted that LA is currently experiencing the longest continuous period of clear air since recording began in 1980, with “the region’s notorious smog [...] nowhere to be found.”
This pattern of environmental gain repeats across the globe. In Venice, canals appear to be running clearer than they have in decades; in China, social distancing restrictions led to a 25 percent, year-over-year drop in China’s carbon dioxide emissions over a four-week period in January. Analysis completed by Finland’s Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air found that Chinese industrial operations fell by 15 percent over those four weeks, while coal consumption at power plants plummeted by 36 percent.
“This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic dropoff over such a wide area for a specific event,” Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA, told reporters for CNN of the recent environmental changes in China. "I am not surprised because many cities nationwide have taken measures to minimize the spread of the virus."
Not surprising maybe -- but the implications of what these changes teach us about a world gone remote are incredibly significant.
Climate change is one of the most pressing challenges faced by the global community today. If left unchecked, it will reverse years of hard-won developmental progress and, according to research presented by the UN, exacerbate threats to food and water availability and, in the long term, incite conflict over those resources. As one Harvard expert in biodiversity loss and climate change shared in an article for the University’s School of Public Health, “even a small global temperature increase could lead to troubling consequences, like rising sea levels, population displacement, disruption to the food supply, flooding, and an increase in infectious diseases.”
Near-imperceptible as global warming might seem to be in everyday life, its impacts can be both drastic and pervasive. The drastic positive changes that we have seen in recent weeks offer hope that reversing the environmental harm and staving off the consequences of global warming may not be as impossible as we might have thought only a few months ago.
Of course, the task won’t be easy, either. Any measures that we take to preserve the environmental gains achieved during the pandemic will need to be balanced alongside our economic priorities. The global financial situation is dire; according to early estimates published by Statista, most major economies will lose 2.4 percent or more of their gross domestic product by the end of 2020. As the research firm’s writers explain for context, “Global GDP was estimated at around 86.6 trillion U.S. dollars in 2019 – meaning that just a 0.4 percent drop in economic growth amounts to almost 3.5 trillion U.S. dollars in lost economic output.” Already, more than 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment.
Economic activity inevitably comes at an environmental cost. A thriving city consumes resources by default; millions of people need to drive to work, power their business operations, and go about the energy-consuming, emission-creating activities of everyday life. The environmental cost is particularly substantial in countries that rely heavily on their industrial operations. While China, for instance, has seen remarkable ecological gains over the last several weeks, the backlash -- or “revenge pollution,” as some experts term it -- from its restarting economy is projected to be extreme.
“In 2009, the Chinese government launched a giant $586 billion stimulus package in response to the global financial crisis -- the majority of which went to large-scale infrastructure projects,” CNN reporter Rebecca Wright wrote in a recent article. “But the resulting explosion in pollution in the following years -- particularly in the "airpocalypse" winter of 2012-2013 -- led to a public outcry which ushered in the Chinese government's first national air pollution action plan in September 2013.” Wright goes on to suggest that China might choose a similar course after the coronavirus crisis comes to an end, and the Chinese government turns its focus to restarting its industrial-dominated economy.
She has a point. Countries need to revitalize their business and industrial sectors; they need to pay the environmental costs required to prompt job growth and regain economic security. Given this, it seems unlikely that the environmental gains we see now will persist in the long term. However, we may still be able to apply a few lessons from this time of crisis to our environmental goals.
While many business pursuits cannot thrive -- or even exist -- as citizens continue working remotely, many are. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor indicate that a third of Americans have the capability to work from home. For context, that’s roughly 124 million people who don’t need to contribute to rush-hour emissions. Moreover, studies indicate that even more people and businesses are attempting to make remote work effective in an attempt to thrive despite coronavirus restrictions.
One survey from the law firm Seyfarth collected responses from 550 employers between March 12 and March 16th and found that 67% were taking steps to allow employees to work from home who don’t usually do so. Thirty-six percent were actively encouraging all employees to work from home in some or all parts of the country, and 42 percent were encouraging employees to work from home on a case-by-case basis. What if, at the very least, we can use this as a learning period to figure out how to make remote work effective and accessible?
“Coronavirus is going to expose more people to working remotely than ever,” Greg Caplan, CEO of the teleworking startup Remote Year told Fast Company. “Most people will see that it is very possible and start to grow accustomed to the benefits of [working remotely], including autonomy, no commute, and fewer distractions than open offices. Companies that don’t allow remote work already are going to have to continue supporting it going forward, now that they have proven to themselves that it works.”
We have an opportunity here. Approximately 24 percent of energy-related CO2 emissions stem from transportation. What if we could cut down on car traffic, and drastically lower the emissions we create by doing so? According to a recent article published in the Harvard Business Review, American employees spend roughly 200 hours a year commuting to work, and three-quarters do so alone. If even a small percentage of companies and workers were to embrace working remotely, the change could make a measurable and impactful difference for the environment.
The pro-environment benefits of working remotely could be the silver lining we desperately need in these dark times -- but it’s up to us to bring it to light.
Image credit: Susanna Marsiglia/Unsplash
Bennat Berger is a tech writer, investor, and real estate professional based in New York City. He currently stands as the co-founder for the NYC-based real estate firm Novel Property Ventures, as well as the sole founding partner for Novel Private Equity, a PE firm that specializes in guiding promising startups towards success. He has written extensively about the often-disruptive impact that innovative tech -- and, in particular, AI -- has on culture and business. You can find samples of his work in Fortune, VentureBeat, Entrepreneur, and The Next Web.