Lockdown retrospective: environmental lessons learned following the COVID-19 lockdown

Florida International University student Emma Ulloa was nearing the end of her high school junior year when global COVID-19 lockdowns began taking place three years ago in March 2020.

What most thought would last a couple weeks turned into months, then became years. During this period, she partook in trendy quarantine activities.

“I made banana bread, whipped coffee, and played Animal Crossing. It got boring pretty quick,” said Ulloa. 

For her birthday in July, her mom gifted her a bicycle, and this started the first instance of the pandemic limitations leading her to become more eco-friendly.

“It was really freeing. I stayed indoors up until then and couldn’t see my friends during the summer,” said Ulloa. “I hadn’t ridden a bike since middle school, so nearly every day I went out and rode around my neighborhood as exercise.”

What started as exercise turned into her ideal way to get around. Ulloa even purchased a bike pannier, which is a bag designed to hold items while bike riding, allowing her to go on grocery runs to keep her at-risk family safe.

“Even when I got my license in 2021, I still rode around on my bike. It just became a habit at that point,” said Ulloa.

More people adopting alternative modes of travel that don’t involve carbon emissions is one of the few positive effects of the pandemic.

Nearly 14% of respondents in a nationwide survey of over 7,000 people on the role of happiness and environmental friendliness after COVID-19 planned to cycle more post-pandemic.

According to the EPA, transportation was the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States in 2020, making up 27% of the emissions.

In Miami, carbon dioxide emissions dropped by 24% from March 15, 2020 to April 15, 2020 during the city’s stay-home order.

During global lockdowns, this newfound environmental prosperity was being praised online. 

Pictures were being shared of Los Angeles’ smog free skies and the water in Venice’s canals being clear instead of a muddy green.

After the all-clear was given for people to go back outside, Mother Nature’s healing period was short-lived.

Carbon dioxide emissions hit a record high of 36.8 billion tons in 2022, following a travel rebound after most lockdown and social distancing protocols were lifted.

People going back to their pre-pandemic lifestyles is allowing the environment to continue to deteriorate, which may result in this pandemic lasting longer than expected. 

It can even deter people from adopting environmentally friendly habits, thinking they don’t have any impact.

Dr. Todd Crowl, Director of the Institute of Environment at FIU, believes that change starts on an individual level.

“People tend to think all of the issues we have associated with climate change are such a big problem that they as an individual have zero impact, which is absolutely the opposite,” said Crowl. “If every individual decreased the number of times they drove somewhere by themselves once a week, if they stop putting fertilizer on their grass in the summer when it rains, if they make sure there’s no plastic in the street in front of them, all of those things collectively would have a huge impact on the issues that we’re facing right now.”

In a worldwide study conducted by Pew Research Center, 80% of respondents said they are willing to make a lot, or some changes in how they live and work to reduce the effects of global climate change.

Chart from Pew Research Center.

Most people realize climate change is a major issue and needs to be addressed as urgently as possible.

Will Charouhis was just a normal 13-year-old when Hurricane Irma hit Miami in 2017. When he experienced his city being flooded, he decided to take a stand against climate change. He founded a non-profit organization named We Are Forces of Nature later that year.

“I recall the storm threw a sailboat up onto our football field, and my own home was inhabitable,” said Charouhis. “At that point, I knew I had to do something.”

Now at 17-years-old, he became a Congressional Award Gold Medalist – the highest award Congress bestows to youth – and has spoken with public figures such as Barack Obama, Al Gore, Jane Goodall, and John Kerry.

In gaining this award, he put in over 1,400 service hours fighting to pause global warming.

The Surfside collapse in 2021 triggered his environmental advocacy to turn into action.

“The collapse was due in part to sea-level rise rusting out the foundation. I knew I had to do more,” said Charouhis. “During the long days of the pandemic, I began planting mangroves to halt coastal erosion.”

At first, the mangrove planting failed. He then researched ways to artificially select mangroves that can withstand ocean warming and acidification. His planting success rate is now up to 80 percent. 

Charouhis planting mangroves. (Courtesy of Will Charouhis)

His organization restored six miles of mangroves across the South Florida coastline, and also provided relief to over a thousand families affected by weather-related disasters in Haiti, Honduras, and Puerto Rico. 

On a community level, Charouhis’ school Ransom Everglades has implemented numerous green initiatives that can be replicated by other schools. These include bike-to-school days, recycling of uniforms and books, and the elimination of most single-use plastics. 

On the We Are Forces of Nature website, a quote states “the pandemic is but one symptom of the biodiversity and climate crises that have been pushed to the sidelines for too long.”

This is a sentiment Dr. Crowl echoed, saying “When ecosystems crash, because of pollution, contaminants, and human impacts, our health goes along with it.”

“We can develop economically feasible solutions to the climate crisis, scale them up, and gain enough traction to save the planet,” said Charouhis. We need to start now, and we need every single one of us. Plant 10 trees a year, buy an electric vehicle, use less water, and vote.”

Kamille Bascus is an aspiring television editor who is pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Digital Journalism at Florida International University. In her free time, she enjoys editing, playing games with friends, and watching reality television shows.