This column is an opinion by Vince Palace, the senior research scientist at the IISD Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
To coin a now-hackneyed phrase, these are unprecedented times for humanity. And, indeed, for the environments in which we live.
With vast swathes of populations now spending much of their time at home, one might assume a net win for the environment — with cleaner air and clearer waterways. But while governments have mobilized resources and shifted priorities like never before, the protection of the environment has seemingly slipped in priority in some jurisdictions.
Across the country, from Ontario and Manitoba to Alberta, there has been a loosening of government requirements for industries and organizations to adhere to provincial limits on certain toxins and pollutants. These limits are designed to protect the environment, but they’re being relaxed for the undefined period of time during which we are affected by COVID-19.
South of the border, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced that it will not expect compliance with the routine monitoring and reporting of pollution, nor will it pursue penalties for those breaking these rules.
This includes the Boundary Waters Treaty and the Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement — legislation designed to protect the environments of both the United States and us here in Canada.
Since potential polluters are not compelled to obey these laws, a likely corollary will be the reduction of the monitoring required to collect data about the state of the environment — for months or potentially even years.
We have seen environmental projects and monitoring being suspended due to fear of viral transmission. And that puts crucial datasets related to the state of the environment in jeopardy.
An environmental dataset may sound like a rather nebulous and clunky concept, but it is basically a critical marker of how well the environment is currently doing and the impact that human activity is having. What we learn from these datasets is used to see if current environmental laws and policies are working, and to decide whether we need to implement new ones.
They are also needed to effectively model and predict what the future will look like, especially with the ever-intensifying impacts of climate change, and to then take steps to mitigate and adapt to that future.
In fact, in this time of greatly adjusted human movement and impact on our planet, monitoring changes in the environment is more critical than ever. Anecdotal evidence of lockdown-related clearer skies in Vancouver and cleaner Venetian waterways, for example, require scientific attention to capture valuable data that will ultimately inform practices and policies that could transform the impact we have on the environment in the future.
Scaling down monitoring during the pandemic is, of course, understandable. We are all trying to physically distance to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, which can prove challenging in cramped scientific facilities or testing sites.
Moreover, in Canada these issues are combined with concerns that continuing to conduct monitoring activities in some parts of the country might introduce COVID-19 to remote communities that are particularly at risk.
Some innovative thinking, however, can help maintain these important datasets.
Scientists in Ontario, for example, have been taking very small groups to conduct pared-down monitoring schedules in order to keep critical freshwater datasets alive. Those groups take precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including self-isolation of the team members for two weeks before and two weeks after their monitoring work.
And while citizen science might be helping in the fight against COVID-19, the public can also help crowdsource much-needed environmental data by going out into their surroundings and collecting samples to buoy scientific projects, while maintaining physical distancing.
Furthermore, distancing measures have not erased the public’s power to voice their displeasure at the slackening of environmental rules. A quick missive to elected representatives and policymakers can help demonstrate that citizens still value environmental tracking, and that it cannot be ignored as governments focus on bolstering the economy.
Important activities may seem to have been placed on the back-burner in the whirlwind that has ensued due to the coronavirus pandemic, including monitoring and protection of our environment. But while government’s loosening of regulations may suggest that environmental protection is now optional, it is essential for scientists, researchers and citizens to find innovative and safe solutions to keep monitoring the state of the environment, and to keep these much-needed datasets up to date.
When the world comes out the other end of this pandemic, we will need that information on the health of our world more than ever.