Today, as work, school and social activities are abruptly canceled or conducted from home, the collective impact of our individual actions is striking. We’re seeing a remarkable reduction in air emissions. Let’s be clear: We never want to experience another pandemic. But as the skies clear above us, and smog and pollution are reduced, our perceptions of what is possible in lowering our environmental footprint have changed.

Reduced concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, a noxious pollutant, can be seen from space. Oil prices are in free fall, the lowest seen in a generation, not just because of oversupply, but also because of reduced consumer demand. Traffic levels in Maine – indeed, around the world – are markedly reduced, as many leave their car in the garage, work from home and switch to videoconferencing. Schools are running entirely via distance learning, with online lesson plans published every day. Even social connections are being sustained online.

These changes in habits are likely to be enduring. Perhaps without realizing it, we are undergoing the transition we need to dramatically reduce pollution worldwide.

Reducing emissions isn’t easy. When I was a young chemical engineer working in a polymer plant, you could sometimes detect a strong, painful chemical smell. When I inquired about it, an older engineer said, “Don’t worry, Marty: That’s the smell of money.”

I didn’t believe that then, and I still don’t today. In fact, I think manufacturing and industry can and should be good for the environment, even as they meet a human need for food, medicine, housing and transportation. But reducing emissions and pollution is not easy.

Maine businesses and their employees have been severely affected by this pandemic. To address an existential threat, we’ve pressed the “pause” button on the economy. That isn’t good. It’s neither a desirable nor a sustainable way to reduce pollution, and the long-term economic and health impacts of this crisis are devastating for many people.

It hasn’t been easy for businesses, workers and students, but it’s also showing us what’s possible. At E2Tech, we used to visit individual high schools to talk to students in STEM careers. Now, every Friday, after schools conclude the morning online lesson plan, we host a Google Hangout, to introduce students to leaders in the energy and environmental sectors. We are reaching new audiences, meeting hundreds of students across the state instead of just one classroom. We’re helping guide students to the career possibilities that await them when our economy inevitably comes roaring back to life.

So even as the coronavirus crisis shows us what reduced emission levels can look like, it also shows what is possible when we all focus on a common problem. If we learn from this disruption, when this crisis passes, the world economy will bounce back stronger than ever. Emissions and pollution don’t have to.

When I headed up sustainability for a large national manufacturer, I had stickers made with the familiar chasing arrows recycling logo – except the chasing arrows were made of dollar bills. My point was this: Doing right by the environment saves money. I made it a point to visit all 29 of our plants with my stickers and put them on the more efficient chillers, boilers and processing equipment we were installing, as well the control panels of our renewable-energy installations. We were investing in reducing our environmental impact – and saving money and creating jobs at the same time. That’s always possible if you focus on it.

That’s why I believe investing in job creation in renewable energy and sustainability-related projects will help pull us out of this crisis. Developing renewable energy, energy efficiency, water and sewer, enhanced manufacturing and grid improvement projects can provide jobs for thousands of Maine’s engineers, consultants, installers, contractors, energy auditors, utility workers and their companies, spurring growth and hiring while improving the environment.

Let’s help pick this economy up by investing in an intentional transition to a more sustainable infrastructure that is cleaner and more resilient yet has a lower operating cost. The businesses and teams that design, build and implement these projects are members of E2Tech. We stand ready to put Maine back to work.

One downside to this vision of the future – now that we’ve shown what’s possible with distance learning, my kids are complaining there’s never going to be another snow day!

 

 

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