This journal article is appearing in a series commissioned by Community Foundations of Canada to accompany the national Vital Signs gender equality reports. The series is being released throughout Fall 2020, and can be accessed here.

This past spring, in the wake of the global lockdown, something extraordinary happened. For the first time in modern memory, the world stopped doing business as usual. With no planes flying around, the skies became quiet. Without commuters on the roads, city air became less polluted. And in no time, wildlife started making its way back into cities thanks to less busy streets, highways, and waterways, both in Canada and around the world. And our climate got a break too: in Spring 2020, at the peak of confinement, carbon dioxide emissions across the globe decreased by 17%.

Change in global daily fossil CO2 emissions, by source of emissions, Jan – May 2020

While the shutdown was caused by a deadly virus that will create economic hardships for women and other marginalized groups for a long time to come, it’s important to remember that the environmental crisis is not going away: its effects are very real and are already being felt by the most vulnerable. The shutdown did, however, give us a glimpse of how our communities could be if we reimagine the relationship we have to the planet and restructure our economy.

As the researchers for CFC’s national Vital Signs series focused on gender equality, we began reflecting before the pandemic on the linkages between social and environmental justice. COVID-19 has made these connections even clearer. We are truly at a turning point in our communities. Will the pandemic make things much, much worse – or much, much better?

Environmental challenges in the pandemic

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has posed a number of challenges in the effort to protect the environment. In recent months, Canada and most of the provinces have used economic recovery as a reason to delay, undermine, and even roll back environmental regulations. Ottawa extended deadlines for companies to report pollution and greenhouse gas emissions data. Quebec tried but failed to pass a law that would have enabled the government to bypass environmental regulations. Alberta suspended environmental monitoring requirements for industry and removed the moratorium on coal mining in the Rocky Mountains dating back to 1976, just to name a few.

This trend is worrisome, as environmental degradation has been linked to negative outcomes for the most marginalized in our communities including increased gender based violence in Canada and around the world. In fact, COVID-19 is exacerbating violence against women in a number of ways, including increasing economic stress which can worsens domestic abuse, increasing the care burden on women, and putting women environmental human rights defenders at greater risk across the globe. Indigenous communities are also facing increased threats of land grabs brought on by the pandemic.

The Data Challenge

One of the things that became clear to us while doing the research for the national Vital Signs series is that there is still an enormous gap in disaggregated data on environmental issues related to gender, race, and socio-economic class and other important variables. This can make it difficult for communities to get a clear understanding of the whole picture, and therefore to take the proper action. This has been all too evident in the pandemic: while policymakers have access to tremendous amounts of information on COVID infections, because the data isn’t broken down by indicators like race or income, it is currently unclear exactly why Black Canadians are disproportionately affected by the virus.

Being able to break down data is a crucial tool that we need when searching for equitable solutions to our environmental crises.

Luckily, the COVID crisis also highlights a number of opportunities for change in our communities, for the betterment of both the environment and people.

Food Production

Supply chain disruptions and panic buying at the start of lockdown, and the increased reliance on food banks, have highlighted the need to rethink our food system. The way we are currently growing, processing, and distributing our food is responsible for over a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

A shift towards environmentally sustainable and local food production could go a long way towards reducing the environmental footprint of what we eat. It can also redirect money into the local community, while creating thousands of jobs.

Transportation, Work and Gender

The way we travel can also have a huge effect on the environment. Before the pandemic, women were already more likely than men (22% vs 16.9%) to bike, walk or use public transit to get to work and less likely to take a car (77% vs 81.8%).

Reducing commuter traffic by having more people working from home could help reduce greenhouse gases and prevent some of Canada’s 14,000 deaths per year due to exposure to air pollution.

The pandemic has accelerated the ongoing shift in how people work in Canada – and how often we need to travel to work, including high-polluting air travel. While it’s unlikely that we will see remote working remain at pandemic levels, a lot could be done to encourage working a few days a week from home in many jobs. About half of Canadian women hold a job that can be done from home, higher than for men. However, the opportunity to be able to work online also has a lot to do with higher education and income levels, so reducing the environmental impact of transportation to work will require an equitable approach such as emphasizing affordable public transit.

Reimagining Our Economy

Perhaps the most promising avenue for lasting change is through our economic recovery plans.

For a long time now, changemakers have been pushing for a drastic transformation of the economy as a solution to the climate crisis. Just last year the idea of a Green New Deal was picking up a lot of steam in Canada.

One of the main arguments against making a deep and swift shift to a sustainable economy was that it would simply cost too much. But the pandemic has shown that governments are willing to spend tremendous amounts to keep the status quo economy afloat.

Many groups across Canada are now calling for recovery plans that would enable us to transition into a more just and equitable economy. There are calls for investment in green infrastructure, a green recovery, and a feminist recovery.  And, encouragingly, some of those plans combine environmental and social equity concerns into a just recovery for a better post-pandemic future. If we are going to saddle future generations with enormous debt, don’t we owe it to them to also give them the best chance for a clean environment and fair communities?

What can Community Foundations do to Support a Just—and Green—Recovery?

Community foundations are often well placed to raise the pressing questions and support many different actors to envision communities that are healthy and inclusive for everyone. Vital Signs and Vital Conversations are great ways to ask: Who has been made most vulnerable by the pandemic, and how can we make sure that doesn’t happen in the future? What investments and systemic changes are needed to build more equitable communities? Community foundations can also use their unique position to build cross-sector partnerships that generate solutions for recovery that are fair to current and future generations – ensuring that women’s leadership is prominent. Who are the community groups – often working at the margins – that have solutions in which environmental and social justice go hand in hand? Community foundations can seek them out, help fund them, and boost their voices for change.

Juniper Glass is lead researcher and author of the national Vital Signs series on gender equity. She is principal of Lumiere Consulting and member of the Community Engagement Committee of the Foundation of Greater Montreal.

Daniel Belbas is a researcher and master’s student at McGill University’s School of Urban Planning.