Can Wearing a Mask Mitigate Climate Change?

Can Wearing a Mask Mitigate Climate Change?

The race to vaccinate the world’s population is underway as COVID-19 continues to hold the world hostage. At the time of this writing, over 25 Million people have been infected and over 400,000 world citizens have lost their lives to complications associated with the virus just in the United States. With the Biden Administration now in place, there will be a renewed resurgence in activity in our efforts to mitigate climate change. As we continue on this path, hopefully leading towards a manageable end to this climactic event, we should take this opportunity to reflect upon the lessons we’ve learned. The world is learning the hard way the importance of pandemic response and preparation, but what can we learn from this as it applies to a number of our other issues? We asked this question in last week’s post on the HlpSum1 blog. We looked at the steps taken by our governments, media organizations, industries, and communities to understand how a challenge such as a global pandemic is met and conquered. First comes education about the issue. Second: researching short and long term solutions. Finally, we have distribution/implementation and acceptance of the solutions. With a process like this we can do what must be done to combat Climate Change as well. Now, let’s zero in on one early part of the process related to the education and triage response phase.

Establishing New Habits

What can our sustainability leaders learn from the execution of this process as it relates to combatting climate change? Many industries, businesses and cities are already at the Distribution and Acceptance phase, while small and medium-sized communities are still working on education.

One of the low-cost, widely recommended practices in combatting the virus has been to wear a face mask when in contact with other people. Just a year ago, it was not at all common practice in the United States to wear a face mask to protect others from viral spread. Now, it’s the recommended approach to limiting the spread of the virus around the world. Unfortunately, at least in the United States, misinformation has led to inconsistent adherence to the new norm, but it is undoubtedly the new norm for the majority of the population. Many Americans have embraced mask wearing in public in addition to social distancing policies. The CDC encouraged the public to make their own serviceable mask if a supply could not be purchased.

So will face masks help us to mitigate climate change? In a literal sense the answer is no. In fact, disposable face masks will more than likely become another landfill and waste problem for our countries to deal with. But perhaps the more important impact here is the lessons we learn in striving to achieve a high mask usage rate and how this can be applied to our sustainability action plans.

Masking up in public is a critical response to dealing with the pandemic.
Best Practices for Climate Change

What low-cost sustainability measures can we promote that will help us to reduce our carbon footprint, and resemble the triage response that mask-wearing has done for reducing Covid-19 spread? Consider some examples from our past in other drastic times.

Through the centuries, mass conservation ideas have been introduced. During World War I, Daylight Saving Time was implemented in order to save on electricity costs. In the 1960s, during the oil embargo, homeowners were encouraged to turn thermostats down by 1 degree so that less oil was used to heat homes nationwide. All of these practices were ways that the average citizen could engage in being more sustainable. With regular implementation of conservation practice these efforts to conserve energy become mainstream or are replaced by technology that achieve a similar purpose. In easier times when we are not forced to use these measures, we become complacent and the result, in the case of sustainable initiatives, is an increased carbon footprint.

There are simple campaigns that we hope can be dusted off and promoted again. Community officials, the media, and our federal government can all participate in these grass root campaigns. Here are some examples:

  • Ambient Air – Setting your thermostat back by one degree still has merit. The Department of Energy indicates that a 1-2 degree temperature setback (cooler in the winter, and warmer in the summer) will reduce energy usage by HVAC by 10% annually. Drawing the curtains or blinds on a hot summer day to avoid radiant heat from direct sunlight will help to lower indoor temperature as well. Homeowners can be incentivized to participate by realizing the savings on their electric and gas bills.
  • Carpooling – Also a concept that was introduced when gasoline prices skyrocketed during the 1970s. Public transportation or ride sharing reduces the number of vehicles on the road emitting harmful emissions. During the pandemic, when more and more people began working from home and not driving to work everyday, there has been a marked improvement in air quality in our cities. Larger scale, direct initiatives to address automobile congestion in major cities have seen very positive results. In 2003, the city of London began using automatic license plate recognition cameras to identify and charge privately owned vehicles entering the city core. In just three years the fees changed behaviors in such a way that traffic in the city core had been reduced by a quarter and the program was generating £122 million a year.
  • Reusable Grocery Bags – Our oceans are now polluted with literal islands of trash, much of which comes from plastics that are not being recycled. In 2019, Cuyahoga County, Ohio had passed legislation prohibiting the use of plastic grocery bags. Grocery chains in the area soon began to cheaply sell reusable grocery bags in preparation for the looming deadline of when they would no longer be able to pack your groceries in plastic bags. Many of these initiatives can be disrupted and this is a perfect example. When the virus spread, this law was tabled to protect grocery store workers by limiting potential sources of contact. However, measures like this can be some of the most visible initiatives we can use to highlight sustainability in the public eye, much like mask wearing was in this pandemic.
  • Smart Load Management – The Office of Energy Efficiency reports that over 15% of electric usage in a home is due to phantom loads. Appliances, TVs, computers (even in sleep mode), continue to passively consume some base load of electricity. We can make it a habit to practice “energy choice” by remembering to turn off devices using electricity when we leave a room or the house altogether. Smart technologies can manage electric load for us as well, detecting when occupants leave a room and turning off the Heat or A/C there.

Simple, everyday habits are the first step in winning this battle. Industry, regulation, news media and smart home technology can bring these ideas back to the forefront. Five years from now let’s hope that we look back on these old behaviors and know we are on our way towards solving the Climate Change issue. Like the vaccine, not everyone will get their shot in the arm at once. But we can individually begin the process all the same.

About HlpSum1: HlpSum1 is a sustainability consulting firm with a focus on supporting small communities. Derek Miller, author of this post, is a sustainability advocate supporting HlpSum1’s mission as a city and regional planning consultant. Derek has teamed up with HlpSum1 to research how leading organizations are approaching sustainability, and use proven business management techniques to create achievable sustainability initiatives for small communities beginning this journey. For more information, please visit www.hlpsum1.com/ for information about sustainability alignment strategies.

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