Photo courtesy Michigan Environmental Council
Photo courtesy Michigan Environmental Council

Streets without cars and skies without planes have become a new normal during the coronavirus pandemic. What does that mean for the Michigan environment, and will it last?

MICHIGAN — The streets have been quiet in the Motor City. This Earth Day looks different than usual, in some good ways, in some bad. 

In a major metropolis recovering from a period of hard financial times, that calm outside is unusual. Even more unusual when the internal combustion engine is at the heart of the character of the city. 

But that same beating, and fossil-fuel burning, heart is a driving force behind climate change. 

The quiet isn’t unique to Detroit. Air quality everywhere from Venice to Los Angeles has never been cleaner and goats are running through the streets in Wales. The more people shelter in place, the fewer greenhouse gasses and pollutants fill the air. Around the world brick-and-mortar businesses are closed, traffic is down to a trickle and planes aren’t flying.

This can be seen in the streets of Metro Detroit this Earth Day. 

Though it seems like a lifetime ago, the beginning of 2020 set the tone of a year where the world was literally burning. Massive fires raged in the Amazon and Australia. The kind of massive cultural transformation the world has been undergoing should be considered in that context of global climate. But, Business Insider notes, the pandemic doesn’t bring all good news for Mother Nature. Medical masks and gloves are washing up in Hong Kong, for instance. 

Those aren’t the only interplays between the novel coronavirus and the environment. As much as the encouragement to stay at home and transitioning more jobs to remote work cutting travel have helped the environment, the state the environment was in may have exacerbated the pandemic. 

Wednesday marks the milestone 50th Earth Day, and this year the costs, challenges and opportunities around global environmental concerns are in a totally new light thanks to a global pandemic..

Coronavirus Changed the Environment, and the Environment Changed Coronavirus

Detroit has been slower to clear the air than most peer cities, Bridge reported. Though at least part of that problem comes from the city’s air already being clearer than most of the headline-grabbing success stories like Beijing and Beirut.  

“It’s not going to be as dramatic as places like China, where some of their industries are not as well-controlled, so you see a really big change,” air monitoring unit supervisor for the state environmental department Susan Kilmer told Bridge.

SEE ALSO: What War Can Teach Us About Defeating COVID-19

But we do know from cell phone data that Michiganders are traveling less, and that travel has overtaken energy as the primary source of carbon emissions that imperil the global climate in the coming decades, says Sean Hammond, Policy Director of the Michigan Environmental Council. Though Hammond says specific data on air quality may be hard to come by with the pandemic still raging, he’s optimistic.

“Gut feeling is the numbers, when they come out, are going to show a large decrease in air pollutants,” Hammond told The ‘Gander. “Industry and everything has slowed down, there’s no traffic. We are seeing decreases in air pollution at this time.”

READ MORE: Gov. Whitmer Creates Task Force to Address Racial Disparities in COVID-19 Deaths

But, Hammond said, there’s a darker story to tell as well. The Ecology Center in Ann Arbor echoed Hammond, telling The ‘Gander that the poor air quality in Detroit helped worsen the pandemic and could account for some of the high death tolls in southeast Michigan counties. 

The correlation between race and infections from the coronavirus is impossible to ignore, and reports have linked a major part of that interaction to questions of environmental justice. As The Nation reports, a link between pollution and the severity of coronavirus cases has been repeatedly demonstrated by science. Environmental racism has long been part of some of the worst-hit counties like Genesee and Wayne.

Underlying medical conditions common in the Black community, particularly asthma related to air pollution, have serious impacts on the outcome of coronavirus infections. So at least in part the extreme infection rate and death toll from the pandemic in Michigan can be traced to pre-existing environmental problems the state suffered from.

But Hammond is hopeful that we can solve two problems in one policy.

Reopening a Greener Economy in Michigan

And there could be a lot of hope for a more environmentally-focused restoration of the economy as well, Hammond argues. A lot of ways to put Michiganders back to work when the virus is under control can be done in ecologically smart ways, or be environmental projects themselves. 

“Things like drinking water, storm water, sewage infrastructure all need upgrades across Michigan,” Hammond said. “Instead of building new roads, try redoing roads and making them mobility-friendly, that’s also a good source of jobs and has a much bigger [return on investment] than just building new lane-miles.”

Hammond also mentioned the closing of coal power plants and a pivot to cleaner energy that is already underway as a response to improved affordability of renewable energy sources. Inside Climate News pointed to a massive national shift away from coal-fired power generation both as plants close and as the plants that remain open scale down operations. 

And of course, infrastructure was a central thrust of the campaign of Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who ran heavily on the slogan ‘fix the damn roads’. It makes sense to use the reignition of the economy as a chance to make good on her objective to address Michigan infrastructure, and to take Hammond’s advice and make addressing environmental shortcomings of existing infrastructure a part of that plan.

“As we move forward, there’s a good economic case for a lot of environmental things,” Hammond said. “Now is a good time to shift from the old way of thinking about building infrastructure and really start thinking about the next generation of sustainable infrastructure.”

It isn’t just Hammond and Michigan mulling over how to make environmental improvements as the world shakes off the pandemic. But that raises a question that so many environmental advocates are asking in this singularly unusual time.

“What we really don’t know is what is going to come next,” he told The ‘Gander. “What is going to be the impact as we start to come out of the pandemic and the lockdowns and restart the economy?”

What’s True for Michigan is True Globally

Hammond hit on perhaps the most important question of this Earth Day — will any of these changes last?

“Is it just a cyclical blip and then we just carry on as before? Or are we actually going to… start to make the sort of structural changes that we need to get on a different track and actually start moving towards net- zero emissions?” Simon Evans, policy editor at Carbon Brief, told Business Insider.

And as NBC reports, the Environmental Protection Agency of the Trump Administration has used the pandemic as an explanation for seriously relaxing the environmental protections they oversee in such a dramatic fashion it was characterized as a “license to pollute” to big business. And business is pushing for even more relaxed protections like plastics manufacturers trying to roll back restrictions on plastic bag use. 

By the same token, though, environmental advocates are also pushing governments. In Europe, NBC notes, European Union leaders have said an “intelligent recovery” must include an environmental ‘Green Deal’ component. 

SEE ALSO: Experts Predicted a Coronavirus Pandemic as Far Back as 2017. Trump Ignored Them.

So which argument will win the day when the pandemic fades and life seeks out a new normal? It likely is anyone’s guess. 

“I can see arguments in both directions,” Kimberly Nicholas, a sustainability science researcher at Lund University in Sweden, told the BBC. “It may be the case that people who are avoiding travel right now are really appreciating spending time with families and focusing on those really core priorities. These moments of crisis can highlight how important those priorities are and help people focus on the health and wellbeing of family, friends and community.”

If the changes stick, Nicholas said, there could be real, important environmental benefits that are born out of the cultural changes caused by the coronavirus. However, if those people planning to take trips intend to reschedule and make up for lost travel, emissions would come back as people returned to their old habits. 

As BBC notes, it is safe to assume even the most ardent environmental advocates would not have wanted global emissions reduced as part of a plague. But a plague is what the world currently faces, and the coronavirus has shown that when a challenge arises, people can come together and make amazing, dramatic actions happen.