COVID, Campus Sustainability & Beyond: Our Director Sees a Sustainable Future

EDITOR’S UPDATE: On Earth Day 2020, iSEE Baum Family Director Evan DeLucia spoke with WGN Radio host Ji Suk Yi on the current pandemic, its effect on the environment, and how we can move forward more sustainably once the crisis ends. Listen on the WGN website >>> 


The global reach of the COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on society and our daily lives, affecting the way we work, shop, learn, and socialize.

It has also reportedly brought a significant drop in pollution emissions in the most affected cities around the world, as schools, churches, businesses, and public places temporarily close and residents shelter at home. Crystal clear water in the canals of Venice and blue skies over Wuhan, China, are a breath of fresh air in daily news feeds packed with stomach-tightening statistics and breaking news more akin to science fiction than reality.

What has been the impact at the University of Illinois — which like many universities has shifted to virtual classes, closed many of its buildings, and asked employees to work from home temporarily?

The following Q&A with iSEE Baum Family Director Evan H. DeLucia explores how the shutdown has affected energy use and sustainability efforts on campus — while keeping in mind the threat from a global pandemic and the energy burden shifted to the home front.


What effect has the move to virtual instruction and work-at-home arrangements had so far on campus energy use, with most campus buildings effectively closed? What are projected outcomes if this “new normal” continues long-term?

It’s a bit too early to quantify, but the move to virtual instruction and work-at-home arrangements will undoubtedly cause a dramatic decrease in campus energy consumption. That will drive down our carbon footprint and our financial allocation to energy, but only temporarily. We need to remain steadfast in our commitment to bring our campus to carbon neutrality once this health crisis passes.


Will those declines be offset by increased use of resources elsewhere, as we all work or attend classes from home?

This is a very interesting question. I predict that as students move home, barring a dramatic change in behavior, energy and water consumption at home will increase — effectively moving our emissions off campus. There may be no net benefit to the planet, as we’ve just moved emissions from one location to another.


What’s been the impact of the upsurge in Zoom meetings and other online teleconferencing? Has limiting travel and canceling conferences reduced our carbon footprint?

Unlike the question above, about the potential shift in emissions from campus to students’ homes, the absolute reduction in emissions from business travel will be large. Travel-related emissions have been increasing on our campus, and this reduction will directly affect the atmosphere as these emissions are not transferred elsewhere.


On a less tangible level, could an extended move to online instruction and remote work decrease the visibility of sustainability on campus because we’re not able to host programs and activities in the same way?

On the contrary. We’ve been slow to embrace the full potential of online education. More online education would increase our reach to underserved students and provide a richer portfolio of courses for residential students. It needs to be done well, though. Zoom lectures are a passable stopgap during the crisis, but not very good pedagogy.


What do you think the long-term impact of this temporary shutdown might be on campus sustainability efforts and the goal of net-zero emissions?

As with almost everything we’re doing, our sustainability efforts will be set back somewhat as, quite justifiably, our attention and that of our outstanding researchers turn to health and safety, as well as education. But we’ll get back to it with renewed personal dedication when the worst of the health crisis passes.


What message would you like to convey to the Illinois community, especially those who are committed to campus sustainability?

Our vibrant and stimulating campus thrives in no small part because it is a healthy environment, both in terms of human health and environmental health. Right now we must focus our attention on human health, but in time, we’ll re-engage with our collective efforts to make our campus a more sustainable living environment.


Learn more about reported environmental impacts this spring:

The New York Times: A satellite that detects tailpipe emissions, fossil fuels burned in power plants, and other industrial activities shows striking reductions in pollution across China and Italy since the start of the outbreak.

NBC News: In China and Italy, coronavirus shutdowns have untended benefits: cleaner air, cleaner water.

BBC NEWS: Air pollutants and carbon emissions over some cities and regions are showing significant drops as COVID-19 affects work and travel.

— Article by Julie Wurth, iSEE Communications Specialist