Will a side effect of the coronavirus pandemic be that more Maine views will be as clear as this vista of Mount Katahdin because of reduced air pollution? (Portland Phoenix/Nick Lund)
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After more than a year trapped in this nightmare pandemic, we’re all looking to get back to something like our previous lives. But before we dive back into old patterns, this whole mess is worth a bit of reflection.

A near-immediate worldwide reduction in travel, a temporary pause in certain industries, and shifts and disruptions in daily lives give scientists a lot to study. Conservationists have long known that major shifts in personal and societal behaviors are needed to reduce environmental threats, and maybe this pandemic has given us a glimpse of something that might work.

It’s still early, scientifically speaking, but what have we learned?

Air quality has improved

One of the few silver linings early in the pandemic came when we recognized that reduced human movement would have positive outcomes for air quality.

Many of us clicked through online slideshows featuring cities with suddenly pristine views, and we hoped that a reduction in the demand for oil and gas would translate into fewer climate-threatening carbon emissions.

There was a 17 percent drop in worldwide carbon dioxide emissions in April 2020, but by years’ end emissions were only 7 percent lower than in 2019. That’s still a major accomplishment, but it feels slight for how much we changed our behavior.

There were more promising results on the local levels, where an increasingly remote workforce made fewer vehicle trips.

Commuting is a drag for most of us, and it also contributes to poor air quality in cities, especially in the form of smog. New York City reported nearly a 25 percent drop in nitrogen dioxide emissions (a major component in smog) into the summer of 2020. Globally, NASA found a 20 percent drop in nitrogen dioxide emissions. Better yet, local emissions appear to have remained at lower-than-average levels, even in parts of the world where restrictions have lifted, perhaps in part to remote working catching on.

Cities will change, for better or for worse

The anxiety of dense living and the embrace of remote work have combined to throw the future of cities into uncertainty. Many of us know people who have left Boston or New York City to move to Maine this year, part of a wave that caused a 22 percent statewide increase in housing prices.

There are pros and cons to this population shift, if it persists, from an environmental perspective. In general, more human density is more environmentally friendly because it reduces the human footprint and results in less driving. On the other end of things, a large movement to rural areas can cause sprawl, or otherwise challenge municipalities that may not have planned for such a surge.

But it may also be true that cities will benefit. As more companies embrace remote work they may downsize the amount of office space they require in cities, freeing up buildings for conversion to housing and potentially easing spiraling rents that have long-plagued large cities. Time will tell.

We’re all in this together

The coronavirus has, in its way, revealed the connectedness of this planet; it’s in every country, threatens every race, and has impacted every economy. The virus spread so quickly because we are connected to each other so closely, whether we knew it or not.

Our environmental response must be similarly worldwide. Pollution and emissions do not respect boundaries, and their impacts are felt far beyond their producer. While local, statewide, and national responses to environmental issues are important – and have an unquestionable local impact – true global change requires a global response.

Slowly but surely, COVID-19 showed us that such a response is possible. Now we’ve got to do it again.

Nick Lund of Cumberland is outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon. He has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, The Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com and on Twitter @TheBirdist.

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