At 50, an Earth Day Like No Other

By Jhoana T. Merino-Martinez
Staff Writer 

Today, Earth Day turns 50.

Instead of the traditional group outings for recycling or tours of gardens and conservatories, this year’s observances are expected to look vacant around the world — and on the FDU campus.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused drastic global action at a scale never seen before. As countries around the world such as Italy, Spain and India continue to impose mandatory lockdowns, citizens are urged to stay home.

As a response to the virus, Fairleigh Dickinson University took steps to limit people on campus, effectively ending group gatherings such as annual Earth Day activities.

But there is a silver lining: Less tourism and traffic mean greenhouse gas emissions are decreasing rapidly around the globe and in New Jersey.

According to an online air quality gauge called AirNow, Teaneck has measured consistently low air pollution rates in the past week. FDU’s predominantly commuter-student population isn’t driving to campus, like its staff, so there is an expected, but temporary, decline in emissions from cars around the area.

The environment seems to have taken a positive turn, so could this be the change that finally puts a halt to the negative effects of climate change once and for all?

Not quite.

It is likely that this pandemic will create a stigma against reusable items and create favor for disposable items such as gloves, cups and, yes, plastic bags.

There is also a higher demand for delivered goods, where the stress on transportation may put more emissions into the air. In addition, delivery food is packaged in single-use materials adding to the waste produced.

Making a Difference in Our Own Backyard

The Equinox participated in a climate change workshop with the NJ College News Commons in February. The seminar helped us consider how we, as a university, inadvertently contribute to the climate crisis and how we might be able to improve.

Will Atkinson, a research and communications fellow at Climate Central, contributed to the daylong session. In an email interview with The Equinox, he elaborated on the observable effects of this pandemic on the environment.

“This could have a major impact on short-term emissions, but these changes may only be temporary,” Atkinson said. “In general, it all depends on whether these short-term tendencies continue past the point when they are important for safety. But even now, there are some waste streams we can work to reduce.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food is the largest waste source in landfills, and Project Drawdown, a climate solution nonprofit, says these wastes account for roughly 8% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

“Improving our food management can cut these emissions and make food more available for families in need,” Atkinson said.

He also said some actions that could be taken later, with proven positive outcomes, like continuing to reduce air pollution and supporting jobs in clean energy. In doing so, it’ll provide green benefits while also assisting in the recovery of our nation’s health and economy.

“Another action is to simply talk about it,” Atkinson said. “COVID-19 has shown the importance of science-based guidance, and that connects to climate change, too.”

Staying away from social gatherings of any kind and raising awareness in quarantine may seem difficult … but not impossible.

The lack of public gatherings proves that our anti-contagion policies are effective in deterring congregations. In celebration of Earth Day, The Equinox has a weeklong challenge on our Instagram page (@equinoxfdu).

The Equinox reached out to FDU’s Green Team but did not receive a reply by the deadline for this article.

Unintentionally, this pandemic proved that global action is possible, even if it is at an extreme level. Once the pandemic has ended, it may pave the way for permanent change.

The premise of self-quarantine relies on everyone’s selfless desire to protect not just families, but the most vulnerable in our community. This proves that together we can make an impact.

“These are tough times,” Atkinson said. “But while most of us are stuck as home, this is a one-of-a kind opportunity for reflection. Think about what truly matters to you, and we can all do our part to build a better world.”

Take New York alone. One of the most densely populated areas in the U.S., the state is showing significant environmental changes. The BBC reports that New York’s CO2 levels have dropped 5-10%, even when May is supposed to be its annual high due to the leaves decomposing.

The BBC said that researchers at Columbia University report that New York’s carbon monoxide emissions, caused by cars and trucks, are down 50% in the past week.

NASA even reports an overall significant drop in air pollutants, like nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from burned fossil fuels, in the northeast area of the US, more specifically, over metropolitan areas.

The effects of keeping billions of people in self-quarantine is already starting to show in their surrounding environment. The Insider, a news platform, reports that Italy’s Venice canals are clearing up from the lack of traffic, and the BBC reports a similar effect on India’s Ganges river, an important lifeline for millions of its citizens.

Animals that once shied away from public squares are now making their appearances. The World Economic Forum reported public sightings of everything from wild boars in Spain, wild goats in Wales, to gangs of monkeys in Thailand.

Let’s hope nonessential travel will be a thing of the past in our near future.

AirNow Chart 2

AirNow report of Teaneck for April 22, 2020.