Social distancing means a breath of fresh air, but for how long?

Mark Winfield
Mark Winfield

As working and spending more time at home are becoming the new normal for many families, our air is getting cleaner as a result.

With fewer people driving, especially to and from work, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the amount of traffic-related pollution in the atmosphere is decreasing noticeably.

According to York University Professor Mark Winfield, co-chair of the University’s Sustainable Energy Initiative, clear and significant improvements in air quality can be observed locally, across the country and around the world as a result of people staying off the roads.

Winfield says that road transportation – specifically of those using internal combustion engines – accounts for around one third of Ontario’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. With a significant number of those cars staying in their driveways, the environmental gains become meaningful.

Similarly, cars and trucks are the source of approximately one-third of precursors for smog. Levels of nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide and particulate matter are also declining as people drive less, and to fewer places.

Winfield notes that the extent to which transportation is a contributor to air quality issues varies across jurisdictions. Whereas pollution and emissions in other parts of the country can be attributed more directly to energy production and industrial activity, emissions from these sectors have been declining in Ontario over the past decade. This means that, in order to make a dent in Ontario’s overall contributions to climate change, critical changes will need to be made to the way we get around.

While we are observing a noticeable drop in emissions, similar to what the world experienced following the economic crisis of 2008, we shouldn’t expect to see a significant change in the trajectory of global temperature. Much of the hard work of tackling global emissions still lies ahead.

However, whether the current reductions in GHG emissions motivate future strategies to fight climate change will depend largely on the choices people make about their transportation habits in the long term, and which aspects of the current paradigm stick.

“Depending on how things play out with COVID-19, we may see permanent adjustments in terms of peoples’ willingness to work from home and not commute,” Winfield says, “and we may eliminate a significant portion of emissions from transportation that way.”

Right now, society is engaged in what Winfield describes as a mass experiment of the viability of new work patterns, an experiment that could head in several different directions.

There’s no certainly that current attitudes and habits toward driving will last as economies begin to re-open and people are drawn out of their homes, either by choice or necessity.

“It could play out in the opposite way as well,” he cautions. “Even today, we’re already hearing reluctance, in particular, to taking public transit.”

Road transportation accounts for around one third of Ontario’s greenhouse gas emissions

Winfield expects that many commuters will opt for personal automobile use over less carbon-intensive forms of transportation until a COVID-19 vaccine is available. Such a shift toward automobile-based transportation habits could lead to significant increases in pollution and would undermine the recent environmental benefits of transit use and carpooling.

He also predicts that dense, transit-oriented urban planning may become less desirable given the role close human contact plays in disease transmission, making emission-driving urban sprawl more difficult to combat in the future.

Ultimately, this has demonstrated to Winfield that society does have an ability to change trajectories.

As economies re-open, a return to business as usual would mean these environmental gains wouldn’t make much of a difference in the long run. However, if some of the changes to the way we live, work and move are permanent, we may see a less carbon intensive society as a result.

Winfield sees the potential as more people and organizations do increasingly more things online and remotely, but also expects to see intense pressure to return to the status quo.

Either way, while individual behaviour will be a major variable, there are numerous policy decisions governments can make to support more people to work remotely even as public health restrictions are eased.

According to Winfield, access to the Internet, especially in low-income households and remote rural communities, as well as access to childcare and clean transportation, are crucial challenges, exacerbated by class, that governments will have to pay attention to. There are also many questions about how people will react to these dramatic lifestyle changes over time.

“We’re at an inflection point,” he explains, “but which way it goes, at this stage in the game, is at best unknown.”