December 2, 2021

Pandemic spurs interest in outdoors, environment

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Jackie Crane, owner of Little York Plantation in Little York, looks over Paris daisies Wednesday. The coronavirus has had its effect on the environment, from reduced greenhouse gas emissions to increased interested in gardening and the environment.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began more than a year ago, people stayed home either through state or federal orders or because their schools or employers told them to.

More people home meant fewer people driving and in some large cities such as Los Angeles and New Delhi, that meant cleaner, smog-reduced air.

In Cortland and nearby counties, the effect the pandemic had on reduced greenhouse gas emissions wasn’t as pronounced, but environmentally beneficial changes, even if temporary, did occur.

People went outside more and became more aware of the health of the environment and took a greater interest in planting, said Amanda Barber, the district manager for the Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Greenhouse gas emissions were somewhat reduced in 2020 from 2019, though the long term trends will remain to be seen, according to Max Zhang, a professor of mechanical engineering at Cornell University.

With Earth Day, a day dedicated to the wellbeing of the planet, approaching Thursday, people’s actions during the pandemic helped, even just a little, have a positive influence in the care of the environment.

People have taken more interest in the wellbeing of the environment through spending more time outdoors, said Barber.

“Demand for plants and interest in the outdoors is definitely up and that to me can only mean positive things for the environment,” she said.

During the pandemic, more people have spent time at home and away from others outside, she said. As more people work from home, more people have been paying attention to their gardens or have gotten interested in gardening as a hobby.

The district has seen a large increase in sales for bare-root shrubs and fish species along with some fruit seeds like blueberries and strawberries, Barber said. This was due in part to people, at the start of the pandemic worrying about food supplies and growing their own food.

“It was a combination of uncertainties and they had time,” she said.

Additionally, with the pandemic canceling or closing many events, more people turned to outside recreation, such as hiking or kayaking.

Anecdotally, Barber said she saw about twice as many people kayaking on Little York Lake on Saturdays during the pandemic than in years prior.

More people outside meant more people taking stewardship of nature, Barber said.

The only negative to more people being outside, she said, was that people may have created access points to bodies of water or trails where there might not have been any.

Beyond that, “I don’t see where those uses” of the outdoors “are having a negative impact,” she said.

As more people get the COVID-19 vaccine and more events that were canceled last year return, Barber said the appreciation people have gained from the outdoors — even if it’s just in their garden — will likely stay.

“I definitely think we’re going to see a sustained impact in terms of people’s priorities and activities” protecting the environment, she said.

The pandemic hit many industries hard, but one that thrived was gardening.

“I think the pandemic has been great for our industry,” said Jackie Crane, owner of Little York Plantation.

Gardening — both for flowers and edible plants — saw a great increase in popularity during the pandemic as more people spent more time at home, she said.

The increased popularity brings with it environmental benefits. When plants or trees are planted, they absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, reports the National Wildlife Federation.

Additionally, plants attract pollinators, such as bees, that help further grow crops, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

As people have been thinking about their health by trying to avoid getting COVID-19, they have also been more focused on their food, leading to a growth in growing, Crane said.

“Even younger people started gardening, especially vegetable gardening,” she said.

Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower are popular vegetables people plant in the spring as they can withstand the cooler weather, she said.

The increased popularity may not be from people being conscious about the environment, per se, but more looking at how to beautify their homes or improve their own health. Still, the effect will likely last beyond the pandemic, Crane said.

“I think it will just get bigger and bigger and bigger,” she said. “This pandemic will impact how people will think

about their homes and their personal life” for generations.

In the early months of the pandemic, pictures went viral across the world of reduced smog in large cities such as Los Angeles following stay-at-home orders and remote work.

That same reduction wasn’t seen in the greater Cortland area, but there were some notable environmental changes, said Max Zhang, a professor of mechanical engineering at Cornell University.

New York state saw about a 20% decline in gasoline sales in 2020 from 2019.

Zhang calculated that with this reduction, Tompkins County produced about 61,665 metric tons less carbon dioxide, or the equivalent of taking 13,400 fewer cars off the road for a year.

Figuring that Cortland County is one county over, Zhang said results were likely similar.

“This is really unprecedented, but this is temporary,” he said, and will likely return to normal once people need to drive to work, again.

However, the reduction seen even locally was very drastic and encouraging for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that can affect climate, he said. And that can suggest a plan for long-term reduction of carbon and greenhouse gas emissions.

First, people will likely reassess the need to work from an office, meaning less emissions from cars and less business travel by air, he said. “That, by itself, will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Second, federal plans to support an expanded electric vehicle infrastructure is underway with President Biden’s proposed $2.7 trillion American Jobs Plan. It proposes encouraging electric-vehicle production and adding 500,000 charging stations across the country by 2035, according to the White House.

Local entities such as the Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit are already working on similar projects; the bus service has added seven electric buses to its fleet and looks to have most or all of its fleet electric by 2035, according to TCAT.

Last, the expansion of autonomous, electric cars will enable more ride sharing in a cleaner manner than gasoline-fueled cars, Zhang said.

“We are taking the action at the federal level now,” he said. “But those are policy driven and that takes a much longer time scale.”