Science·What on Earth?

As cities fight COVID-19, could climate action take a back seat?

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at how physical distancing measures in cities could hurt climate action and dive into research that suggests Arctic warming could be beneficial for lake trout.

Also: Michael Moore's new documentary has angered environmentalists

White text against a semicircle made of lines and blue and green stripes
(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, people! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • As cities fight COVID-19, could climate action take a back seat?
  • Michael Moore's new documentary has angered environmentalists
  • Warming Arctic may be good news for lake trout

As cities fight COVID-19, could climate action take a back seat?

(Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

As a result of COVID-19-related lockdowns, many cities right now look like a shadow of their former selves, with shuttered storefronts, fewer cars and just less bustle in general.

Reduced economic activity has led to decreases in carbon emissions and air pollution, but urban planners worry that as some regions of the world slowly begin to ease restrictions, some of the measures used to maintain physical distance in the short and long term could actually set back climate action. 

"What we have to be particularly vigilant about is that we not think we're making ourselves more safe from pandemics by making ourselves more vulnerable to climate change," said Brent Toderian, a former city planner for Vancouver who now runs an urban design consultancy. "And it's entirely possible that that will happen."

To take one example, urban planners and environmentalists have long touted public transit as the most efficient and sustainable way to move people through cities. But across the globe, transit use has been down — the result of more people working from home as well as an aversion to crowds during a pandemic. 

There is evidence that people are opting for the relative safety of automobiles, a major source of carbon emissions. In Wuhan, China, the starting point of the novel coronavirus outbreak, car sales have surged since the country eased lockdown restrictions. In fact, to help its struggling auto industry, the Chinese government is considering easing emissions standards and giving citizens cash incentives to buy new vehicles.

"Cars may be safer in terms of viral spread, but they are not safer in terms of accidents and the other health consequences of car use and car dependency related to pollution," said Toderian, who noted that climate change has been a factor in amplifying the spread of infectious diseases

"If we think we're making ourselves safer by driving more, the opposite is true, and we're heading down a dark path ... because we may be putting our foot on the gas towards more and worse pandemics."

Rachel MacCleery, senior vice-president at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute, said that as scientists try to better understand the transmission of the novel coronavirus, "there will be an understandable desire for people to socially distance in their cars."

There are signs amid the pandemic that some cities are trying to keep car use in check. Milan, Italy, for example, recently announced a plan to transform 35 kilometres of streets to expand cycling and walking space.

But MacCleery worries that given the economic pain of the shutdowns, municipalities might shy away from investments in public transit, which is vital to the concept of "smart density" — that is, the idea of maximizing land use (from transportation to housing) in a sustainable way.

This is obviously a challenge at a time of physical distancing. Faced with the prospect of close interactions in transit terminals and condominiums, for example, some people might opt for suburban areas, said Ahsan Habib, director of the school of planning at Dalhousie University. 

This could encourage more sprawl. "There might be some tendency for people to live in a more scattered fashion, which [urban planners] have been discouraging for a long time," he said. 

MacCleery said that although the pandemic "is an immediate threat," climate change "is an ever-present threat on the horizon, and we have to make sure our response to the pandemic doesn't work against efforts to fight climate change."

Andre Mayer

Reader feedback

Last week, we asked how the COVID-19 pandemic had changed your food habits. Here are some of your responses.

Andree Vary said she is "building good-looking raised garden beds and compost heaps. Half my shrubs are now edible. I have begun growing microgreens indoors and have also subscribed to a biweekly vegetable basket. Local meat has me stumped. I had been buying from a local slaughter/butcher outfit, but they do not practise social distancing effectively yet so for the moment have stopped."

Cheryl Turner, who lives in Alberta, wrote, "I am very lucky to have a next-door neighbour who lets me use his vegetable garden plot." She said "it is in a perfect, protected, sunny spot, and is wonderful for growing vegetables, herbs and flowers."

She added that "when we had to self-isolate for two weeks on our return to Canada [from vacation], when I was ordering online, I was only ordering healthy food, and not being tempted by the high-sugar/-salt/-fat items that tempt me when in a store."

A. Schafer: "I've always had a small garden for vegetables, but may make it a little bigger this year and have purchased a small freezer so I don't have to shop as often."

Marie H. wrote that in "the latter half of last year I actively began 'training' my Instagram algorithm to give me more options for food sources that were local, emphasized environmental stewardship and animal welfare. I couldn't believe how quickly I had many great options to investigate/try out/explore." In an effort to reduce plastic, she also "switched from store-bought bread and commercial dried pasta to homemade sourdough and homemade fresh pasta." 

She added that "these two things together unknowingly set us up for a frankly delicious pandemic so far."

Write us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

The Big Picture: Michael Moore's eco documentary

Michael Moore has long made documentaries that address what he sees as some of the biggest ills in American society, from corporate downsizing (Roger & Me) to gun culture (Bowling for Columbine) to military adventurism (Fahrenheit 9/11). Given his left-wing bona fides (Moore campaigned for presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders), environmentalists have been puzzled and infuriated that he produced a polemic against the green energy sector. Directed by Jeff Gibbs and released online last week, Planet of the Humans makes the case, among other things, that renewable technologies like biomass, wind and solar energy are as harmful to the planet as burning fossil fuels. The film has been met with withering criticism from climate activists and journalists. Norway-based energy reporter Ketan Joshi wrote a detailed blog post examining some of the myths and misinformation in the film. Moore's stance is that there are too many of us on the planet, and that we have been seeking the wrong solutions to the problem of climate change. Meanwhile, British columnist and eco-activist George Monbiot tweeted, "Michael, it's time to recognize that this film is a complete crock…. It is crammed with gross distortions and outright falsehoods. Please take it down and start again."

(Ernesto S. Ruscio/Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Warming Arctic may be good news for lake trout

(Steven Campana/University of Iceland)

Nowhere in the world are the effects of climate change being felt more than in the Arctic, as the region is warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the planet.

There are increased concerns about environmental consequences, as a thawing landscape means new species of insects and animals make their way further north to parts they've never been seen before. But a new study has good news for one particular species: lake trout.

The study, which took 15 years and is published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that warming temperatures over the next 30 years will not only make lake trout grow faster but also spread into lakes that are frozen all year long. As a result, the lake trout population could see an increase of roughly 29 per cent.

The study first looked at a mind-blowing number of Arctic lakes — 7.2 million — before paring it down to more than 481,000 that were capable of supporting lake trout. 

But there's a catch: Although they would grow faster, the trout would die sooner as water temperatures increased. 

Still, more fish could bode well, allowing for more recreational and commercial fishing, particularly as the Arctic begins to open up. Yet, there is also the serious potential to overfish. This is why the researchers undertook the study.

"It's so unusual to have a fishery where you have the option of putting some sort of conservation measures in place before they get hammered," said Steven Campana, a Canadian professor in the department of life and environmental science at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. 

"Usually it happens way after the barn gate has been opened. So, here the chance was to actually regulate things beforehand."

Of course, not all of the lakes are home to lake trout, especially those that are currently frozen over. But flooding and perhaps birds — which can accidentally drop their prey into lakes as they fly overhead — could play a role in naturally populating those lakes with the fish.

Although the study is an important step in determining what the effects of warming will be, it can't take into account unknown variables, such as the response of new species moving into the region.

"Lake trout can colonize new systems," said Louise Chavarie, an affiliate researcher at the University of Glasgow's Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine. "But they're not the only one. And then there's the species from the south that are also going to extend their habitat … so it's really hard to forecast what is coming up."

Still, the initial findings are good news for the region. 

"There are so many scientific papers now talking about the negative impacts [of climate change], which are real," said Campana. "In many areas … things are going to be disappearing, going extinct, et cetera, and you get very little of the sort of the positive. It's not like we were looking for the positive here. It just happened that way."

Nicole Mortillaro

Stay in touch!

Are there issues you'd like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We'd love to hear from you. Email us at

Sign up here to get What on Earth? in your inbox every Thursday.

Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now