Hope for the environment post-Coronavirus?

A blog post by Lewis Bloss

Lewis Bloss
Former Policy and Communications Officer

Posted 03/04/2020

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This past week, I have found myself thinking a lot about one apparent silver lining to these difficult and unprecedented times: namely, the environmental impact of the actions we are all taking to protect those around us from the spread of coronavirus. Fish and seabirds have returned to the newly-clear waters of Venice’s canals; air pollution has fallen dramatically in Los Angeles, Seattle and New York; and China’s CO2 emissions have dropped by around a quarter, which could make 2020 the first year since 2009 to see a fall in global carbon emissions.

Some have cautioned against taking too much solace from these trends – yet, anyway. In the months and years ahead, there is a danger now that governments around the world will focus on economic recovery above all other considerations, with potentially disastrous consequences for the environment. Indeed, this is precisely what happened after the financial crisis of 2008-09: governments around the world invested hugely in national economies to ensure a rapid return to fossil fuel-driven economic growth, making 2010 a record-breaking year for global carbon emissions. While it is right that COP26 in Glasgow and the Scottish Government’s Climate Change Plan have been postponed as a result of the pandemic, these delays do point to the risk that the climate and nature crises will fall down the political agenda in the years ahead as governments around the world grapple with the long-term impacts of the virus.

Still, there are several aspects of the current crisis that, to me at least, make it seem possible that things could play out more positively this time. The weeks and months ahead will be worrying and painful for all of us, but the same willingness to adapt to new circumstances, thoughtfulness with regards to others, and decisiveness of action that we will need to get through this public health emergency will also be a crucial part of any effective response to the climate and nature crises in the years and decades to come.

Firstly, in order to stem the spread of coronavirus, we have all adopted new behaviours – many of which I believe have had the fortunate side-effect of benefiting the environment. The necessity that we avoid crowded office environments, for instance, has caused many people work from home. It is the consequent decline in car usage – particularly at commuting times – that is largely responsible for the recent fall in pollution in major cities. Some of these behavioural changes may outlast the current emergency, with positive long-term environmental impacts – if, for example, more employers were to adopt flexible working arrangements. Indeed, technological advances have made it possible for us at Keep Scotland Beautiful to continue holding seminars, meetings and one-on-one conversations with community groups across the country over the past few weeks.

Secondly, the present situation has shown the value of decisive and ambitious government intervention in addressing emergencies. Governments in the UK and across Europe have responded to the coronavirus crisis with job retention schemes of a scale I would previously have found hard to imagine, showing precisely the kind of boldness of ambition and imagination which is sorely needed with regards to the climate and nature emergencies. In addition, there is no doubt that governments across the world – from China to here in Scotland – are more concerned with these emergencies in 2020 than they were in 2009, meaning there is hope that we may see a ‘greener’ recovery from this economic crisis than from previous ones.

Finally, the coronavirus crisis has made abundantly clear the huge amount of thoughtfulness and concern for the welfare of those around us that exists in our society. Every time we wash our hands for longer than usual, or maintain a safe physical distance from others, or limit ourselves to only essential trips outside, we are not only doing so for our own sake – we are also doing so to help protect and care for other (particularly more vulnerable) members of society. The immense value we as a society have come to place on caring for others has also been made evident by the incredible scale of the Claps for Carers which are now taking place nationwide at 8pm every Thursday night.

I believe it is precisely this attitude of thoughtfulness and protectiveness that we need to come to the fore in our relations with the natural world as a whole in the years to come. Despite the fear and anxiety that we all feel at this time, the past few weeks have provided a template for how a better way of living with each other and our environment may come to pass.

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