Science·What on Earth?

Are physical distancing measures giving bikes a new lease on life?

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at how people are turning to cycling at a time of physical distancing, the growth of renewable energy capacity worldwide and why lower emissions right now might not last.

Also: COVID-19 shutdowns are leading to lower emissions - but it probably won't last

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:

  • Are physical distancing measures giving bikes a new lease on life?
  • As energy projects expand worldwide, renewable sources are surging
  • A coronavirus-related drop in global emissions seems like good news — right?

Are physical distancing measures giving bikes a new lease on life?

People in the Ottawa Valley who want to donate or request a bike, can contact the group via email: (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

To slow the spread of coronavirus, we've had to physically distance ourselves from others, which has meant a lot of lifestyle changes, including the way we get around.

Getting into an enclosed bus or train with other passengers — or even a taxi or ride-hailing service with a driver — is no longer a recommended option. To make matters worse, many transit agencies are cutting back service. Yet many people still have to get to work and medical appointments. 

Meanwhile, we're being told to stay home as much as possible, but also to get fresh air and exercise (while gyms are closed). An influx of park visitors — many of whom weren't physically distant enough from each other — has caused governments to close parking lots at national, provincial and local parks.

The solution to this conundrum? In many cases, it's getting on a bike.

New Yorkers have already done this in droves, with bike shops reporting double the sales they normally get at this time of year. Meanwhile, bike repair shops in the U.K. also say business is booming.

In Canada, so many people are cycling in cities like Winnipeg and Calgary that the municipalities are closing some lanes and roads to vehicles to give cyclists (and pedestrians) more space. Meanwhile, bike shops remain open as many provincial governments have recognized them as an essential service.

Brian Pincott, executive director of Vélo Canada Bikes, a group that promotes cycling and advocates for infrastructure to make the activity safer, said that kind of government support is welcome. 

He noted that many urban, lower-income people don't have other good transportation options right now.

"So it is also a matter of equity to be able to have the appropriate infrastructure in place for people to actually go about their day-to-day [lives]," he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has inadvertently improved cycling conditions by taking a lot of automobiles off the road. Pincott said the car-centric design of our cities often discourages people from taking a two-wheeler.

"Now that there are a lot fewer cars on the road, more and more people are seeing that cycling is a viable choice," he said. "It's a great family activity."

But will the boost in cycling last after the pandemic is over and physical distancing measures are lifted?

Pincott thinks it depends on whether governments continue to make it safer and easier for people to ride their bikes. He thinks this is a great opportunity for cities to create space for it.

In the meantime, he hopes as the weather gets warmer, people will take advantage of the "perfect time" to get on their bikes.

"It's impossible not to be happy when you're getting around on your bike," he said. "And God knows we need a little bit of happiness."

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

Last week, we interviewed Tom Rand, author of the new book The Case for Climate Capitalism: Economic Solutions for a Planet in Crisis.

Reader Susan Bates was struck by Rand's assertion that "when you can articulate a risk appropriately, people will make a sacrifice for the common good. Humans are fundamentally caring and decent." Bates said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, "the government is articulating the risk appropriately through daily briefings, updated models, news alerts and more."

"We need a laser-focused communication strategy for climate change in Ontario and Canada, and the response to this COVID pandemic has given us the blueprint."

Contact us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

The Big Picture: Renewable energy growth

In 2019, renewable power capacity (including wind, solar, hydro and geothermal) grew by 176 gigawatts worldwide, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). That figure was a shade off the amount of renewable power capacity added in 2018 (179 GW). What's notable about the 2019 statistics is that of all of the energy capacity added around the globe, 72 per cent of it was renewable, led by solar and wind.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

A coronavirus-related drop in global emissions seems like good news — right?

(Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press)

The streets of big cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal are empty. Shopping malls are shuttered. Restaurants sit in the dark. This isn't just the case across Canada, but across the globe. 

Worldwide shutdowns over COVID-19 are having a deep economic impact, but they're also having an unintended positive outcome: a reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

A decline in CO2 emissions has been observed in China — an estimated 25 per cent — and similar drops are expected in northern Europe, where countries like Italy have been under lockdown for more than a month. But it's a drop in the bucket, scientists say.

That's because of two main factors: one, there's a difference in CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations of CO2; and two, any declines are expected to be short-lived.

Global warming "is still trying to catch up to the increased levels of greenhouse gases that are now in the atmosphere. And they will be catching up for many years," said Deke Arndt, climate monitoring chief at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Centers for Environmental Information. 

"Short-term variances or short-term departures from the trend, even in the downward sense ... don't reverse what we've seen and what we will continue to see for years to come."

Katharine Hayhoe, a Canadian climate scientist at the Texas Tech University Climate Science Center, stressed that the amount that CO2 emissions decline in the current period will barely be noticeable in the longer term. That's because of existing CO2 concentrations.

"Atmospheric CO2 is the cumulative effect of all of our emissions over decades to centuries," she said. "Imagine if you were putting a block on a pile, and you'd been doing that every single month for 300 years, and then you don't put a block on the pile, and you say, 'Oh, there's a big difference in the pile.' But the naked eye can't even see that difference. So that's the difference between concentrations versus emissions."

Another factor to consider is that the reduction in CO2 emissions likely won't last — once cities or countries lift their lockdowns, industries will potentially ramp up production in an effort to overcome their financial losses. Indeed, that effect has already been observed in China. 

As well, though other parts of the world — including Canada — might see a drop in emissions during lockdowns, it may not be quite as dramatic as what was observed in China. 

Glen Peters, research director at Norway's Center for International Climate Research, predicts that year-on-year emissions will drop in 2020, "but I would add a very large uncertainty around that."

"The biggest challenge is that we are only one-quarter of the way into the year, and we have to make big assumptions about what happens for the next nine months of the year."

Even if emissions were to go down a whopping 50 per cent in 2020, if they went back up to pre-COVID-19 levels, it would have "virtually no effect on climate."

— 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