Yes, No, Maybe So? Can Quarantine be a Good Thing for the Environment?

Woman alone on a phone leaning out of an open window. Trees out of focus in the background.

August 6, 2020 | Written by Joanne Pham

 

It has now been months since the threat of COVID-19 warranted almost national lockdown. Reopening is like a swinging door at this point with the end still not in sight.

 

Despite it all,  silver linings might yet be found: the environment might actually be improving because of quarantine.

No doubt, you have heard of at least one of the studies showing significant reductions in air pollution levels (like this study in China); the acceleration of ESG investments; and the struggles of the oil industry in the face of reduced vehicle traffic. (Or you may have stayed under a rock, but at least you are social distancing!)

Is the environment getting better?

Percent decreases in PM2.5 levels across ten major cities comparing the 2020 post- shustdown time period to the 2019 pre-shutdown period
Global reduction in PM2.5 levels from the same time period in 2019 to after shutdown in 2020. Source: IQ Air

So, is the environment getting better now? The short answer is maybe, but actually no. Even the boons gained from improving the environment comes with its caveats. As long as quarantine has felt, a few months is still not long enough to determine significant, long-term impacts on climate change or behavioral changes to nature. Clearing House (a collaboration between China and Europe) is a project focused on the latter topic, but the results from this effort will only come out in 2023. Even the oil industry is receiving stimulus packages from the government while the renewable energy industry struggles without similar financial aid.

 

More people might be rediscovering nature, but this might not be for the best if people are not being safe or smart. Another study from the University of Maryland found from tracking cellular data that more people are getting out but not social distancing. Here’s a tip: wear a mask when going out and also dispose of it properly. Shocking, I know.

Adjustments in the urban forestry industry

As for the environmental field, the urban forestry industry has had to make major adjustments in the face of COVID-19. From a recent virtual meeting of the Front Range Urban Forestry Council, hosted by Natalie Wehrwein and the City of Longmont, at least 35% of the participants, including some from PlanIT Geo™, had faced furloughs in their place of employment. Additionally, 60% now worked remotely, and most faced budget or communication issues. These local responses from surrounding Colorado communities reflected the results found from a recent Stanford study, which determined that 42% of the US labor force now worked from home. However, only 51% of them reported being able to work with an efficiency of 80% or more, and they were already familiar with computer work.

I just miss my coworkers and the collaborative office environment (and office snacks)! - Maegan Blansett

a tree growing out of a rocky hill with a blue sky background.

Still, the results from both surveys are an interesting contrast to the survey completed by a subset of PlanIT Geo employees. To be fair, this was a much smaller sample size, but the responses should still be considered seriously. Though only half were strangers to remote work, all PG team members reported no significant problems with their home/work environment. Aside from…“I just miss my coworkers and the collaborative office environment (and office snacks)!” responded Maegan Blansett

 

Most also noted a difference in their projects in some way or another. Quarantine generally meant less fieldwork taking place, fewer new projects starting in general, fewer projects starting in small communities, and smaller budgets. It also meant the continuation of ongoing projects from before quarantine with a heavier focus on consulting projects, large-scale projects, and grant-funded projects. These might be major changes, but just the fact that there were these differences and no significant complaints shows the resiliency of PlanIT Geo.

 

Lastly, the survey asked how COVID-19 would change the structure of PlanIT Geo in the future. Andrew Carrier replied with “more virtual meetings [for consulting services].” Certainly, there is less of a stigma against video calls now. Jacob Caggiano supposed that revenue would have to be diversified and his sales team would have to “improve [their] inbound marketing efforts.” Finally, there would be differences in “how community events can be organized..for our planning & consulting projects…I could also see potential challenges for our field team who might have to work within new travel regulations,” Maegan reflected. Notably, the GIS team would not have to change much because they were used to computer work as Ben Wittmann confirmed.

 

The end of quarantine is still indefinite and so are any significant improvements to the environment. Still, people are adaptable, and time will tell what the urban forestry industry will look like by next year. There are some real, concrete benefits that the FRUFC respondents found, though: no traffic and spending more time with their pets. With those responses, it would be a wonder if anyone came back to the office at all. Get remote working tips in our blog series: Working From Home.

a dog sitting upright in a chair, three cats in a window on a sunny day and two dogs cuddling together on a pillow.
New additions to the PlanIT Geo marketing team.
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