COVID-19 and climate change
There are a lot of speculations flying around at the moment: "COVID-19 will help climate change", "lockdown is ending pollution", "this is the earth healing herself". There is always a grain of truth in statements like this, but often they're clouded by a lot of confusion. They get further from the truth the more they're repeated - like a game of Chinese whispers.
In this blog I hope to bring a bit more truth to these questions and look at whether our current situation is indeed having an impact on climate change.
We saw this coming
Experts around the world have been warning, for a long time, that a pandemic could be right round the corner. And that, in our interconnected world, the consequences could be terrifying. So while we didn't know that coronavirus would hit us at this time, or this badly, we did see a situation like this coming.
Sound familiar? Experts have warned that the climate emergency is going to hit us, fast. In fact, as we know, lot's of people around the world are already feeling its effects.
So the first thing to say is this: coronavirus should be teaching us to listen to the experts, to prepare in advance and to do all we can to combat climate change. We can't afford to become blinkered and put all our energy into fighting this virus at the expense of the future.
In fact, the World Economic Forum warns, "There is a risk that as the immediate crisis wanes and its economic consequences become clearer, we cast aside longer-term aspirations in pursuit of short-term easy fixes, many of which would have adverse environmental consequences." Now, of course, I think we need to be doing all we can to fight coronavirus, all I am saying is that we need to keep a long-term, future perspective here.
Now let's turn to the topic of this blog - what immediate effects is our COVID-19 lockdown having on climate change?
This season of lockdown has seen a reduction in almost every kind of transport. Air travel has ground to a halt, public transport is running less frequently, and there are far fewer cars on the road. "As industries, transport networks and businesses have closed down, it has brought a sudden drop in carbon emissions" (BBC).
A UK example to bring this home: in March road traffic fell by more than 70%. A Guardian article states that "road traffic accounts for about 80% of nitrogen [di]oxide emissions in the UK." While nitrogen dioxide is not a greenhouse gas, it's a big pollutant (exacerbating respiratory diseases) and "originates from the same activities and industrial sectors that are responsible for a large share of the world’s carbon emissions and that drive global heating" (The Guardian).
Looking at the bigger picture again, "first China, then Italy, now the UK, Germany and dozens of other countries are experiencing temporary falls in carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide of as much as 40%, greatly improving air quality and reducing the risks of asthma, heart attacks and lung disease" (The Guardian).
One incredible illustration of this can be seen in India. "Some residents in northern India say they can see the snow-capped Himalayas 200 kilometres away for the first time in 30 years" (SBS). The article pulls together social media posts from people who are marvelling at the beauty of the Himalayas from their homes - it's pretty amazing.
All of this is monumental - "the planet is expected to see its first fall in global emissions since the 2008-9 financial crisis" (The Guardian). That can only be a good thing for climate change.
However, once our lockdown has lifted we must be careful not to rush back to where we were before, or worse. We should be asking ourselves what measures can stay, whether we can walk or cycle more and fly less. But crucially our government needs to use this moment to make systemic changes.
We need to learn from the past. In the Guardian, Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst for the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, is quoted saying: “The big question is whether government stimulus measures lead to pollution levels rebounding above the levels before the crisis, like happened after the 2008 financial crisis.”
UK councils regularly cut the grass on roadside verges (sure, why not?). Little do we know this actually has a negative impact on wildlife. Roadside verges are one of the last remaining habitats for wildflowers, in fact the Guardian have reported that "roadside verges are one of the last refuges for the many plant species that have been devastated by the conversion of natural meadows into farmland and housing estates. These narrow strips of grassland are home to 700 species of wildflowers, nearly 45% of the UK’s total flora."
Due to the COVID-19 lockdown many councils have delayed their regular roadside trimmings, giving wildflowers and bees a chance to thrive.
However, the picture is not so rosy in the rest of the world. In fact, "conservation groups fear this will open the door to more illegal poaching, mining and logging" (The Guardian). This just shows us the story isn't always so simple.
The UN have said, "as we inch from a “war-time” response to “building back better”, we need to take on board the environmental signals and what they mean for our future and wellbeing, because COVID-19 is by no means a “silver lining” for the environment."
The improvements and changes discussed above are temporary - if we go back to business-as-usual we will lose these positive impacts of lockdown.
We cannot go back to business-as-usual.
Our response to rebuilding after the crisis should be centred around renewable energy, smart buildings, green and more public transport, conservation and expansion of nature. Let's look at that last one a little further:
According to the UN, our expansion across the earth's surface "means that, today, human activity has altered almost 75 per cent of the earth’s surface, squeezing wildlife and nature into an ever-smaller corner of the planet. And yet, nature is critical to our own survival: nature provides us with our oxygen, regulates our weather patterns, pollinates our crops, produces our food, feed and fibre, but it is under increasing stress."
How can we change what has been normal? End deforestation, restore forests and natural areas, protect vital spaces (such as the Amazon rainforest), and end the illegal wildlife trade.
The World Economic Forum observed that in many ways our response to COVID-19 is very similar to the response we need to tackle the climate emergency. "It is clear that we have many of the tools to make major advances in addressing climate change; what we need now is the political will to apply them" (World Economic Forum).
We don't know what the world post COVID-19 will look like. But we must take this disruption as an opportunity to redefine normal. We cannot go back to the same levels of consumerism, we cannot go back to the same levels of international travel, we cannot go back. If we do we're heading for something much worse than COVID-19.
I know that today's blog is a lot heavier than recent blogs. But I wanted to take this opportunity to dispel some myths, and sink my teeth into something a bit chunkier. I've missed writing longer, more topical blogs like this. I hope that it has helped to frame our current crisis in a more global and long-term perspective.