The coronavirus pandemic has precipitated a seismic shift in how we go about our day-to-day lives. Long-term, if not permanent, repercussions on modern society are inevitable. The virus has transcended borders and brought businesses and governments alike to a crawl. In a few short months, it has redefined disaster planning and has forced a widespread reconsideration of what progress and stability look like.
Over one third of the global population is currently in or emerging from some form of lockdown; reactions and measures to combat the crisis have developed extremely quickly in response to its unprecedented global spread. However, another crisis threatens the safety of mankind and the future of our planet, yet has seen no such reactionary measures. The slower-moving issue of climate change poses an existential threat to populations around the world. Now is the time to hit reset in the battle to stop climate change and reverse its dangerous effects.
A climate, changed?
As people remain at home and social, professional and educational activities are on hold due to public health measures, it seems that the natural world, for a moment at least, has taken a deep sigh of relief.
Air quality suddenly improved as daily global greenhouse gas emissions were recorded to have dropped by 17% in early April, compared with 2019. Airlines reduced scheduled flights by up to 95% and Stanford scientists estimated that due to the drop in CO2 emissions, China’s lockdown alone might have saved as many as 77,000 lives in the region. Venice’s canals, without the tourist activity and motorised transportation, were cleaner and clearer than they have been for years, and in Mumbai, a record-breaking number of migrating flamingos landed in the city thanks to the lull in human activity.
Air quality suddenly improved
However, it’s not all good news. There has been an increase in the amount of non-recyclable waste created as people opt for convenient and disposable options like plastic supermarket bags and take-aways meals. Organic waste levels have also risen as producers are left with surplus produce, and freight services are limited, leaving perishable commodities unable to be transported.
Current changes in activity will not have a significant impact on CO2 levels on a global and long-term scale – nor will they be enough to mitigate the climate crisis. According to the United Nations, we need to reduce global emissions by 7.6% each year for the next ten years in order to reach the 1.5°C Paris Agreement target. The effects of Covid-19 amount to a drop of between 5.5% and 5.7%. Already, China’s air pollution has returned to pre-pandemic levels, and other countries in the process of easing out of lockdown are likely to follow.
This pandemic is proof that change and adaptation is possible
A new (green) dawn
The coronavirus will not itself solve the climate crisis, and yet, it has provided a window into how society is open and able to change when necessary. Businesses and governments have made bold decisions in order to preserve the health of their employees and citizens in the longer term. Now we must encourage the same bold proactivity to solve the climate emergency.
In the wake of widespread office closures, household names like Nationwide, Mondelez and Barclays are now discussing a permanent shift to their enterprise work models and embracing remote working; a departure from the centuries-old office tradition. Questions are likewise being asked about whether business travel will return to its previous volumes, given the widespread adoption of video conference solutions, and even if holidaymakers might lose their appetite for regular, long distance vacationing.
Technology has enabled a rapid digitalisation across industries in response to social distancing and lockdown requirements. Businesses have pivoted and governments have mobilised, proving, if nothing else, that it is possible. If industry giants like Dyson, Best Western and LVMH can turn around a custom-design ventilator, offer hospital bed space, and begin hand sanitiser production in just a matter of days, what could the global economy be capable of as a collective?
The response to this pandemic is proof that change and adaptation is possible, even in the most challenging of circumstances, and should motivate us to all work together for a better world as we recover from this crisis.
The view from the top
Despite this powerful possibility, the green movement is still systematically hampered by regulation and state-imposed restrictions. How governments react to the coronavirus crisis is crucial, not only to enable initial short-term stability and recovery, but also to guarantee long-term, sustainable growth. The pandemic has presented an immediate threat to public health and individual livelihoods, but the climate crisis is approaching a point of no-return and needs an equally decisive response.
As governments look to rebuild and stimulate their economies into the post-Covid world, they must consider their long-term sustainability goals, and channel resources accordingly. Clean energy, for example, has suffered significantly: the industry, previously one of America’s fastest growing, is now looking at a predicted loss of half a million jobs and billions of dollars in jeopardised projects and investments in the US. By contrast, in aerospace, easyJet, Scandinavian Airlines and Tui have secured £2.9bn in loans and financial support, with no requisite environmental conditions attached. Lufthansa has also recently finalised an £8bn rescue deal with the German government.
There are, of course, economic benefits to supporting legacy industries, particularly those that provide millions of jobs worldwide. However, governments must look to support and promote jobs in sectors that will create a sustainable economy, while significantly cutting greenhouse gas emissions across industries.
By investing in electric car manufacturers and clean, efficient rail networks, for example, countries will be able to inject innovation and dynamism into the legacy transport sector. In other industries too, governments must tighten regulation and offer clean technology incentives to accelerate the rollout of nature-based green alternatives. The long-term environmental benefits of renewables, like solar power, would far outweigh the initial cost of switching to them, while implementing regenerative land use practices, like organic agriculture or tree planting, actually absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere.
One world, many voices
Change is implemented from the top, but it starts from the ground up. Public pressure is building and governments cannot continue to ignore the climate crisis. According to a recent Ipsos poll, a majority of the British public want climate change policy to be prioritised during economic recovery post-Covid; two thirds believe the threat is as serious as coronavirus.
Big business also has a responsibility to lead by example, as the world becomes increasingly digital and revenues continue to climb. It’s time for leadership that is compassionate and environmentally astute.
Following the Great Recession of 2008, financial services were regulated to align with their customers’ interests; now, it is time for governments to likewise align with the interests of their citizens, and invest in the future.
There is no viable alternative. Economic recovery from a recession is slow but inevitable; recovery from a pandemic, depending on vaccine creation, is manageable; recovery from the climate crisis, once we pass the tipping point, is unlikely. Now is the time to change the status quo and set the global economy firmly on the path to climate positivity.