In just a few short weeks, the world has become unrecognisable. Flights are grounded, whole countries are on lockdown and few can remember the last time they saw pasta.
With the coronavirus spreading across the globe, and the lockdown imposed by many governments in response, we are living through unprecedented times. While 2020 was set to be the ‘year of climate action’, it will now be remembered as the year of the pandemic. But actually, albeit by default rather than design (and whether you agree with it or not...), for a few weeks now the lockdown has allowed a glimpse into how we might re-model life as we previously knew it to create a world in which the environment and our species can co-exist in improved harmony.
Certainly we are witnessing a test that no politician would dare to sponsor in the name of improving the environment.
Here are some of the key environmental impacts of the coronavirus lockdown:
Perhaps the most noticeable impact of the pandemic so far has been the sudden clampdown on vast amounts of travel. Our skies are clear of all but the essential planes, rail passengers have fallen by almost 70% resulting in a stripped down timetable and the canals in Venice are clear enough to see fish in again.
This is great news for local air quality and will put a temporary dent in global emissions, buying us a little more valuable time to tackle climate change. The Venice fish are probably happier too.
Talking of air quality, since we first published this blog, the BBC has produced some interesting maps showing the improvement in air quality over Europe since the start of the lockdown.
After years of talk about how the internet will enable people to work remotely, working from home has suddenly become compulsory for swathes of employees. While there will doubtless be teething problems, many companies are being forced to see the possibilities of remote work, at least for some of the time. This could lead to a great reduction in commuting and the associated emissions. Not to mention an increase in free time, and a reduction in stress and all of its consequences.
Similarly, we have had to cut out the most emission dense form of commuting - air travel. Though video conferencing comes with faults, its carbon footprint is minuscule compared to hopping on a plane for an international meeting.
Even the teenagers are reporting that remote schooling is both efficient and enjoyable. So good in fact that we could easily be exporting the best of our education system to those without access to the educational processes, experience and excellence that we have in this country.
In all areas of life, we have been forced to engage successfully with technology to connect us to one other remotely, an engagement that opens up possibilities well beyond this pandemic.
The current shutdown will give some temporary respite in the relentless eco-system erosion that we have caused over decades.
People may look to the sources of infectious diseases like COVID-19 to see how we can reduce the risk of something like this happening again, or more importantly, something far more insidious happening (for all we know, it could be a lot worse...witness SARs). About 75% of new human diseases are zoonotic, originating from wild animals, with which people are coming into increasingly close contact. If we could clamp down on the trade of wildlife for consumption or protect more habitats, we could potentially reduce the risk of future outbreaks.
Only this week the UN’s environment chief, Inger Andersen, said that ‘nature is sending us a message’ with the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis. To quote the Guardian:
“Andersen said humanity was placing too many pressures on the natural world with damaging consequences, and warned that failing to take care of the planet meant not taking care of ourselves.
Leading scientists also said the Covid-19 outbreak was a ‘clear warning shot’, given that far more deadly diseases existed in wildlife, and that today’s civilisation is ‘playing with fire’. They said it was almost always human behaviour that caused diseases to spill over into humans.
To prevent further outbreaks, the experts said, both global heating and the destruction of the natural world for farming, mining and housing have to end, as both drive wildlife into contact with people.”
Non essential shopping
Napoleon is (perhaps wrongly) quoted as having called us a ‘nation of shopkeepers’. There may or may not have been truth in what was said, but what is true is that a nation of shopkeepers requires a nation of shoppers, buying stuff that perhaps we don’t actually need, generating acres of rubbish in the process and wasting tonnes of food.
The current closure of all but essential shops serves as a ‘meditation in retail restraint’, a chance to reflect on our own consumption, and perhaps a chance to break the habits of a lifetime, or at least a generation. ‘Make do and mend’ may once again become the order of the day. Food wastage may reduce. Both would improve the sustainability of our resources and reduce the need to find yet more land to fill with our rubbish.
Greenhouse gas emissions
As the economy grinds to a halt, greenhouse gas emissions are declining. This will buy us a little more time to keep to 1.5°C warming (at our current rate we have under 8 years left). There is no consensus on the relevance of 1.5°C or on any other 'threshold' level of warming. But it probably is fair to say that the more the world warms, the more we are getting into the unknown in terms of 'climate feedbacks', and the possibility of 'run away' climate change. 'Unknown' is generally not a good thing when it comes to global balance and the stability of world economies.
In replying to another of our blogs, one commentator points out that the current situation could have been far worse had it happened when we were more dependent on coal for our fuel. Mines would have closed, power cuts would have ensued, remote working would have been a non-starter, and, forced to rely on backup generators, the NHS would have been under even more pressure than it is at present.
The transformation in the structure of our energy supply, even in the last 10 years, must surely be a positive to be celebrated at this time.
Data source: Drax.
Last year saw a huge rise in climate change awareness and action, driven by activism, protests, increased media coverage and political pressure.
The pandemic takes attention away from the planet’s larger existential threat. As countries lockdown, activists cannot convene and international climate talks are postponed. With the most significant environmental conference since the Paris Agreement, COP26, due in November, halts to preliminary talks could have a significant impact.
When the virus has abated, will the public still have the energy to tackle the climate crisis?
Let’s hope so.
Imagine a world...
If nothing else, this crisis has demonstrated that where there is a will, the government, businesses and individuals are able to come together to tackle an emergency situation, perceived or real. For now, even those that think the government response may be totally out of proportion to the threat, are going along with that response.
On a global scale, we’re being forced by government to make unprecedented sacrifices. We’re experiencing an almighty blow to our infrastructure, transport, economy and food supply.
Rapid climate change could have similarly serious impacts on our infrastructure, transport and economy, and tackling climate change requires a transformation of them all.
What the pandemic has shown is that we could, if we so wished, take on preservation of the environment and the drive for sustainability with a globally united force and urgency - having the courage to re-allocate spending and to implement far reaching but visionary measures.
If there is one positive to come out of the current crisis, it is perhaps that it has allowed us to imagine - and even test - how the world might be. To see how quickly air quality can improve, and to see how we could actually make do with less, and travel less. And to see the fish in the Venice canals.
And it has shown just how much we can think the unthinkable and pull together when the chips are down, or at least, when the government wants us to believe the chips are down.
Here’s to hoping that we find a way to build on the positives when the pandemic is over.