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A large rainbow is shown on the National Arts Centre as a woman walks across a quiet street in downtown Ottawa on April 21, 2020.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

With many of us staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic, the air has been getting cleaner. But you probably shouldn’t get used to it.

“This unfortunate public health emergency is having an effect on carbon dioxide emissions because we’re flying less, driving less, factories and stores and factories are shuttered,” says Tom Green, climate solutions policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation. “After this is over, there is a possibility that emissions could rebound as we saw after the 2008 global economic crisis – then, emissions dropped briefly, but there was no effect on long-term climate projections.”

It’s not exactly clear yet how much CO2, the gas that contributes to man-made climate change, we’re producing right now.

Before the pandemic, we’d been producing more and more CO2, and other greenhouse gases including methane and nitrous oxide, every year.

“I’ve seen some projections that by the end of the year, depending in how long this goes on, [the pandemic response] could bring us down by 6 or 7 per cent,” Green says. “That would still leave us with emissions higher than any year before 2010.”

Canada and other United Nations members signed the Paris Agreement in 2015 to keep temperatures from rising this century to more than 2 degrees Celsius over what they were before industrialization. That’s to prevent a rise in extreme weather, wildfires, droughts and flooding we’re seeing already.

To meet those targets, we’d have to see a six or seven per cent decrease in emissions, which come mainly from burning fossil fuels, every year.

The pandemic is bringing devastating human and economic losses, but are there lessons from the response that can help governments, industries and the public work to lower emissions once things get closer to normal?

“I recently heard someone say COVID-19 is the sprint, but climate change is the marathon,” says Catherine Abreu, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada. “I think [COVID-19] has shown the incredible willingness among people to take individual action for the common good when there’s a commonly held agreement on what that action is.”

Lessons learned?

The pandemic shows how governments and industries can work together in an emergency, says Steve McCauley, senior director with Pollution Probe.

But, it also shows “how we need to work to prevent emergencies from happening in the first place,” McCauley says. “When we’re moving into a post-pandemic economic recovery, there is a lot we can do.”

In most of Canada, transportation is the top greenhouse-gas producer, McCauley says. Not only do more of us drive gas-guzzling SUVs than ever, but we’re consuming more and more goods that are shipped long distances in diesel trucks.

“[Governments] could electrify light-duty fleets across the country, and we could invest in electric charging infrastructure to support the introduction of electric vehicles into the marketplace,” McCauley says. “Those areas are huge opportunities to stimulate our economies coming out of the pandemic.”

Heavy-duty trucks need to switch from diesel to hydrogen or renewable natural gas produced by composting, McCauley says.

Canada also needs to set its own fuel standards for passenger vehicles, instead of following the Trump administration’s recent rollback on fuel economy standards, McCauley says. That could also mean encouraging companies to build more EVs and hybrids here.

“The other thing you can do is increase partnerships with Europe and Japan,” McCauley says. “Both Honda and Toyota have manufacturing operations in Canada, and those companies have been leaders in reducing emissions from their fleets.”

With oil prices below zero, any government plans for a post-pandemic recovery should include investments in electric and fuel-cell technologies that could provide long-term jobs that aren’t dependent on oil prices, DSF’s Green says.

“We can start building up Canada’s electric-vehicle-manufacturing capacity – we can already build buses and school buses,” he says.

Worldwide, demand for electric vehicles is coming from China and India, and that’s not likely to slow down, Abreu says.

“For me, the question is: how long will North America continue to ignore these global trends,” Abreu says.

The pandemic is also showing how avoiding long commutes can impact CO2 emissions.

“It’s hard to look for silver linings in this, but people are seeing new possibilities for cities with good active transportation,” Green says. “Here in Vancouver, bikes have been a very good way to get around during this, and we’re seeing road space being reallocated to them very quickly.”

While we can’t stay home forever, more of us might decide to work from home, or at least closer to home, after this, Abreu says.

“I travel quite a lot for work, and it’s been a relief not to be travelling constantly,” Abreu says. “I know, when I return to work, I’ll be doing some serious thinking about how I can reduce my travel – not just to reduce emissions, but because it’s better for my health.”

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