How the pandemic changed the fight against climate change

In the early days of the pandemic, New York and cities around the world became ghost towns; no people, no cars, and no airplanes buzzing overhead.

With lockdowns in place, global activity ground to such a halt, NASA scientists noticed something very strange: dramatic decreases in air pollution over China.

"There was a blip, there was for a short time a dramatic downturn in air pollution because people were not driving or flying as much," said Michael Gerrard, a professor of Environmental Law at Columbia Law School.

But the blip came almost as quickly as it went, and as society began to reopen, harmful emissions began to rebound.

It's one of the many assessments environmentalists and scientists are making as they look back on an unprecedented year, and the pandemic's impact on the planet. and the climate change movement.

"There was certainly a loss of the momentum that had been built up with Greta Thunberg and all the student demonstrations," said Gerrard.

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And shifts in policies and mindsets seemed to revert. New York City's residential food scrap pick-up program was scrapped, because of budget concerns. Many municipalities paused plastic bag bans and the use of single-use plastic skyrocketed, says Emy Kane, Director of Marketing and Digital Communications for the nonprofit Lonely Whale, which works to build awareness of plastic pollution.

"The plastic pollution crisis has only increased this year," Kane said.

One reason: PPE, or personal protective equipment. Masks, gloves, and gowns piled up in the trash, in the streets, and eventually in the water.

"The numbers around PPE are pretty staggering," she said. "We have around 129 billion facemasks and about 69 billion gloves used every single month, so that’s an enormous amount of single-use plastic most of it not recyclable."

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But there are signs we're moving back in the right direction. Federal legislation to "break free from plastic" was reintroduced and on Thursday, President Biden rolled out ambitious climate policy plans to half fossil fuel emissions by 2030.

In the City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced new renewable energy initiatives, electric school buses, and the return of curbside compost pickup.

"There was this temporary loss of momentum but I think we have most of that back now," said Gerrard.