By Claire Sanders, Climate Change Specialist, Essex Region Conservation Authority

Before the COVID-19 crisis emerged, I was working on what we thought was the biggest, most immediate global threat to human and environmental health: climate change. Over the last few months, my role has not changed but my perspective has.

Through this current crisis, we’ve seen decisive, coordinated action from our municipal, provincial and federal leaders. Now, as we move through the stages of re-opening our province safely, our leaders should not only be thinking about getting us through this crisis, but through the next 10 years to that looming 2030 climate deadline. That’s the date the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said we need to cut global emissions in half in order to avoid climate catastrophe.

Governments are already considering different approaches to re-starting the economy, while continuing to manage the current health crisis. Further stimulus will be needed to kick-start it. I’m adding my voice to the growing chorus suggesting that this is the time to put sustainability front and centre.

There are many opportunities to invest in low-carbon infrastructure projects that will create jobs. In this region, we need to ensure we have shovel-ready plans in place to capitalize on any new funding for climate adaptation and alternative energy projects. This is what Windsor-Essex is good at – re-tooling, responding, innovating. We could lead the way through this critical next decade.

How cool was it to see Hiram Walker & Sons start making hand sanitizer, and the Ford Motor Company produce plastic protective face shields?  Re-tooling an entire factory for a completely different product, like ventilators (or electric vehicles!), isn’t easy and certainly isn’t cheap. We’ve already seen inklings that the global auto industry is heading toward a transformation – as I write this, GM is re-tooling a plant in Detroit for an Electric Vehicle line. The government plays a crucial role in enabling and incentivizing innovation like that through loans and grants.

This crisis has demonstrated humankind’s capacity for rapid, massive change. Within weeks of this crisis emerging, organizations that didn’t have a work-from-home policy, including my own, were able to adapt (surprisingly!) quickly for staff to work remotely. 

We’ve heard about air pollution clearing up in China and India because everyone is on lockdown. Here’s a small local snapshot: many of the 30 full-time staff in our office commute roughly 40km a day, which equates to 6000km per week. That totals roughly 1.61tCO2 a week. ERCA would need to plant 1,404 trees a year to offset our staff commutes alone. We’re also saving hundreds of dollars on gas and insurance. And that’s just our small organization. Imagine the impact if we are able to commit to a version of this current work-from-home model in a meaningful way.

This situation has also changed how my family thinks about food security and waste. All of our purchases are more thoughtful and planned. From food to toilet paper, not much goes to waste around here these days. We’ve been getting fresh, mostly-local produce delivered for the last couple of years. While this growing service is certainly convenient, I think people are also seeing the enormous value of knowing where their food is coming from, who has been in contact with it, dealing with less packaging, and supporting local business.

‘Victory Gardens’ have returned – an idea that first gained popularity during the First and Second World Wars. We’re taking this opportunity to transform our yard into places for food production and habitat for native species. As a family, we are being more mindful of our carbon footprint and how we can emerge from this as better humans.

Rather than anticipating a return to ‘normal’, we should strive to emerge from this crisis applying the lessons we’ve learned about how rapidly organizations, individuals, and all levels of government can adapt, and how quickly our environment can recover when massive change is implemented.  We’ve learned that a new, gentler ‘normal’, that sustains our world, is achievable. This could be the best opportunity we’ve had this century to invest in the path towards a sustainable, low-carbon, resilient future.