People in many countries around the world are these days living under a plethora of more or less severe restrictions put in place to control the spread of the covid-19, popularly known as coronavirus. There are already rivers of ink (or bytes?) been written on this. I just wanted to share some thoughts on the implications between this epidemic and the wider global transformation towards a more sustainable life.

Many of the restrictions affect transportation, particularly international flights but also the more usual transport and commuting, as factories are closed, events are cancelled and people are told to stay at home. This is nowhere as obvious as in China, specially in the Hubei province and the city of Wuhan, where the epidemic was first detected and the initial spread took place. We are now seeing similar restrictions in other places such as in Italy. Apart from severe inconvenience for the people, this events have led to a measurable decrease in the emission of pollutants, as shown in the case of China. I am still waiting to see similar images for Europe, particularly Italy.

decreased pollution china coronavirus nasa
Concentration of pollutants over China at the beginning of January 2020 (left), and in mid February 2020 (right). Data source: Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI) on ESA’s Sentinel-5 satellite
Image credit: Josh Stevens / NASA Earth Observatory.

Some people consider this a positive side effect of the epidemic, and in a way it can probably can be considered as such, after all these are effective decreases in emissions. However, we should not forget that the epidemic will one day end (soon perhaps?) and all restrictions will be lifted. In a business-as-usual world where there is no lessons learned, flights and industry will resume their activities and greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and heavy air pollution over industrial cities will continue to build up. We have already witnessed such lost opportunities, for example after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, or after the financial crisis in 2008. We certainly need to do better this time!

I believe that one of the best lessons we could draw from this epidemic is that most of us can still live our lives without much commuting to work. In particular, I believe that working from home or from a nearby place on a regular basis can be a real bonus to the environment if the practice could be widely and persistently adopted. Such a thing is of course not feasible for everyone, but I believe it is certainly possible for many, particularly office workers. Meeting in person is and will be forever important but I am convinced it is not necessary 5 days a week. In many professions productive contact with coworkers is done very effectively by electronic means alone on an everyday basis.

Imagine a world in which most people would only be required to commute to a place just 2 or 3 days a week instead of the usual 5. Such a change would automatically mean a lot less cars and buses in the streets: no rush hour frenzy, no two hours commute. Globally. That could bring about a massive reduction in air pollution, emissions, congestion, stress and (why not) viral contagions. Perhaps deeply rooted but old fashioned visions of how a workplace should be need to be wiped off. Perhaps this is the opportunity that the coronavirus epidemic can bring to us. In a world where workers can balance freedom with responsibility, less massive commuting also makes for a better work-life balance, with healthier environment and society. We would still have the problem of having to generate enough clean energy, but that is one will have to be solve anyway.