Greenpoint: Earth breathing easier as we hold our breath amid COVID-19

It’s our first widespread experiment in telecommuting

I’ve been working from home for the past two weeks and I must say I’m enjoying the commute.

Instead of carpooling or driving in dense traffic for an hour or more every day, I’m traveling downstairs to the dinner table. If I have an online meeting or a conference call, I move into the upstairs room vacated by the college kid. I have to close the door to keep out the baby goats that are being bottle fed and still living part time in the house. They have discovered stairs, and think there is nothing more fun than galloping up and rolling back down.

The dog is allowed at meetings, though she doesn’t have much to say. Pets throughout the country are reveling in the fact that their people are at home all day — even if those people are working on their computers, video conferencing or yacking on their phones.

There are still extra walks, extra pats, extra time to lie on feet.

While a lot of businesses have shut down or curtailed services — temporarily or permanently — a lot of businesses are finding ways to continue effectively and efficiently with some or all of their workers on home assignment.

It’s our first widespread experiment in telecommuting.

The earth has noticed. Levels of nitrogen dioxide — a component of smog created mainly from burning fossil fuels — have dropped markedly over major U.S. cities since March 10, when stay-at-home advisories and orders started. The lack of cars on the highways is a major factor.

Nitrous oxide levels also were way down over Wuhan in January and February, according to satellite data from NASA’s Earth Observatory. In Italy, under a countrywide lockdown, the canals of Venice have turned to clear water and schools of fish returned, too.

In the air over New York City, Columbia University researchers found a 50 percent drop in carbon monoxide emissions, a 5-10 percent drop in carbon dioxide emissions and a “solid drop” in methane, the BBC reported, likely a result of the drop in traffic.

Two things to keep in mind: These changes are not permanent, and a pandemic is not the best way to improve the environment.

But it does shine a light on the impact that we humans have on our planet. Why do we drive so much? Why don’t we treat our air and water as if it’s what keeps us alive on this planet? It’s not like we don’t breathe and drink the stuff.

This crisis will be over one day. Business and manufacturers will resume operations, concerts and games and parades will return, work-from-home employees will be invited back to the office. Should we return to business as usual?

Telecommuting has been an available tool for decades, but avoided by many businesses that thought employees won’t work if they are not watched. Now we’re trying it, and we probably have enough time to figure out a lot of the kinks. Will it become a tool more businesses are willing to use? I know I’m working more, not less, and more efficiently too. And saving on gas and reducing emissions at the same time.

Long-term telecommuting doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing deal. If people can split working time between home and the office, or if a business uses a combination of remote and onsite employees, we can significantly reduce rush-hour traffic and its accompanying pollution. We can reduce it more if the remaining commuters utilize mass transit if it’s available, or find carpool buddies if it’s not.

If companies continue using online meeting tools for working with sister offices across the country or the world, we can cut air traffic, further reducing carbon emissions.

Once we’re on the other side and being encouraged to do more to stimulate the economy, can we remember to do more to slow the degradation of our planet’s air and water?

There’s a tiny glimmer of hope in this time of anxiety — maybe we can change our behavior, and maybe those behavioral changes can impact the earth for the better.

Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on April 12. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

Categories: Life & Arts

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