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Celebrating the 50th Earth Day

By Gregory M. Williams, Senior Energy Advisor

From the first Earth Day in 1970 photo credit: History 

Fifty years this week, the first Earth Day took place.  As a child, I faintly remember a commercial, sponsored by an organization called “Keep America Beautiful” which featured a Native American by the name of Chief Iron Eyes Cody, who was shown paddling his canoe down a pristine river. The commercial ended with him standing by a roadway and a bag of trash being tossed out the window by a passing car as a tear slowly fell from his eye. It had the tagline of “Get Involved Now. Pollution hurts all of us.”  

Since the inception of Earth Day in 1970, we as a nation have probably spent untold amounts of money to clean-up our waterways such as our Chesapeake Bay and its many tributaries, protect natural resources, create green jobs, bolster the nation’s recreation infrastructure, and move from a fossil energy based economy to more of a reliance on nuclear power, natural gas and more renewable energy technologies such as biofuels, solar, wind, and where applicable, hydropower.  

Since the shutdown, have you noticed that our highways and roads are less busy, the planes have basically been grounded and the cruise ships have come into port, that cars and trucks sit parked in our driveways and the Bay is free from the plethora of motor and sailing boats? My wife and I certainly have as we were taking our daily walk this past weekend. In fact, a preliminary report from the Maryland Department of the Environment finds that auto traffic is down nearly 50% on interstate 95 since the outbreak of COVID-19, and that harmful emissions are significantly down at a sampling of Maryland’s power plants. The Baltimore Sun reported last week how the month of March was a no go month, citing significant drops in all forms of travel. 

COVID-19 is certainly changing our country and state culturally, socially, and environmentally.  As we are just beginning to develop plans to reopen our economy, we as a state and nation must decide what our society will look like post COVID-19.  Will it be back to the hustle and bustle of our daily rat race as normal – driving back and forth to work and polluting our atmosphere – or will we embrace teleworking, which is becoming more and more popular? Working from home is getting more and more difficult for business to deny and that working from home is a smart business decision, not only for them but their employees as well. According to a poll by Global Workplace Analytics “working from home has grown a significant 80% in popularity since 2005.” Will we see long-term changes for government offices which will help our state to make up the projected $2.8 billion shortfall due to the COVID-19 pandemic? Shifting more workers to telework would reduce overhead through mortgage or lease, utilities, janitorial services, office supplies and furniture. Additionally, remote work reduces attrition, increases productivity, cuts down on wasted meetings but more importantly, it reduces the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere. 

The coronavirus has caused a dramatic drop in energy consumption in the U.S., as stay-at-home measures have meant businesses shutting down and industrial activity largely halted. According to the Edison Electric Institute,  “U.S. electricity demand last week plunged to a 16-year low as offices shut and industrial activity slowed sharply with government travel and work restrictions to slow the coronavirus spread,”. The U.S. Department of Energy’s  Energy Information Administration’s Short Term Energy Outlook, forecasts that CO2 emissions will drop by 7.5%this year, largely because of measures to contain the coronavirus and that total U.S. electric power sector generation will decline by 3% in 2020. But in 2021, they estimate that total energy-related CO2 emissions will increase by 3.6%.

When this pandemic crisis ends, and it will, we hope our economy will bounce back stronger. But we cannot allow the harmful CO2 emissions to bounce back too.  As I look back on this time of working from home, practicing social distancing, not commuting 42 miles each day, (which takes approximately two hours a day away from my family) I began to wonder if COVID-19 is nature’s way of sending us a message for us to “slow down” and that we have not been good stewards of the planet.  That our day to day activities are harming our environment and that we must change if we are going to have a cleaner environment to live, work and to raise a family in. Through this crisis we have seen first-hand the benefits of improved technology which has allowed us to exit from the daily rat race and still allow us to work more productively from our homes without harming the environment. I also wonder if Chief Iron Eyes Cody could look at what has taken place over the last fifty years and if that tear running down

his cheek would remain a tear of sorrow or would that tear be one of happiness at the tremendous progress we as a nation have made. The choice is ours to make if we will go back to the traditional normal or will we embrace a cleaner and healthier “new normal?”