As I See It: Terry Murden
While the death toll is horrific and the coronavirus pandemic is far from over, one increasingly evident outcome of the global lockdown is an improvement in air quality across the world which could ultimately save and improve lives.
The absence of cars and planes and the shutdown of industry has also slowed the damaging impact on the climate and the natural world.
It appears the virus has, by tragic consequence, achieved in a matter of weeks the sort of outcome demanded by the combined efforts of Greta Thunberg, Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion over many years. As for the long term benefits and whether the changes will be lasting, it is too early to make an accurate call.
Certainly, we have seen some encouraging developments. In China, carbon emissions were down by an estimated 18% between early February and mid-March due to falls in coal consumption and industrial output, according to calculations first published by climate science and policy website CarbonBrief.
The slowdown helped the world’s biggest polluter to avoid pumping 250 million metric tonnes of carbon into its atmosphere — more than half the annual carbon emissions of the UK.
According to National Geographic declining power demands and depressed manufacturing in the European Union could cause emissions to fall by nearly 400 million metric tonnes this year, representing about 9% of the bloc’s total 2020 emissions target.
Closer to home, Edinburgh eco-app Pawprint estimates that there will be a 15% fall in the carbon footprint of the average UK citizen this year – equal to a reduction of 130 million tonnes of CO2.
Pawprint believes the change will be lasting, ushering in the start of a more climate friendly way of life with fewer cars and planes and by consumers being less wasteful at home and spending less on goods and services.
Christian Arno, founder, describes the reduction as “impressive”, adding: “If this trend was to continue and we maintain some of the small behavioural changes currently adopted then we would be well on our way to improving the health of our planet. In turn, this would help improve the nation’s health as fewer pollutants mean less asthma and less lung and heart disease.”
Transportation generally is a major contributor to greenhouse gases and while demand is depressed, this will impact beneficially on air quality.
However, some believe a permanent change is unlikely, or that it will not be as pronounced as some would suggest.
As China began grinding its way back to work over the past month, energy usage, air pollution levels, and carbon emissions all appeared to be on the rebound.
Even if these emissions did not return to previous levels it is likely to be more a result of worldwide recession than a conscious effort to cut polluting industry. Demand and supply will be lower because of higher unemployment and lower consumption as countries see GDP slashed and recover only slowly from the pandemic.
The data suggests only a brief drop in carbon emissions across some of the world’s largest economies – perhaps 1% as occurred in 2009 after the financial crash.
A more permanent reduction is more likely to depend on governments returning to earlier pledges to promote cleaner energy policies. Pessimists say a lasting green legacy could be held back by politicians seeking ways to deal with the huge burden of government financial support. This could mean denying investment in vital new technologies and campaigns to clean up the planet.
Optimists believe that that the pandemic will have profound effects on economic and business planning as governments and commerce appreciate the benefits that have been gained from wider adoption of technology. More companies have embraced virtual meetings and conferencing, reducing the need to travel and commute.
It has boosted the case for more flexible working, giving employers and employees more choice in how and when they work. Significantly, there have been reports that this has improved efficiency and output as workers spend less time in transit and that virtual meetings are, in some cases, more focused because of fewer distractions.
Aside from cost and management efficiency, these changes are being driven by consumer choice which will also drive political strategies. The lockdown has given us all a moment to press the pause button, re-calibrate world growth and conspicuous consumption, particularly our spending on things we don’t really need.
The challenge for the world post-lockdown may not be how to crank up GDP, but how to create a smaller, more manageable and more comfortable world shorn of cramped train journeys, traffic jams, haste, stress, waste and all the other paraphernalia that we could all do without.
Motoring organisation the AA has – somewhat counter-intuitively – advised the government to switch infrastructure investment from building new roads to widening internet bandwidth.
As trunk roads and country lanes fall silent wildlife and the natural habitat have flourished and roadkills have fallen dramatically. People in some urban conurbations are seeing deer and wild boar in normally busy streets and hearing bird song for the first time.
But there are already fears that in some countries there will be a terrible payback, particularly in those regions of the world which have built their economies around the supply of cheap components and fabrics, as well as tourism, and now see a lack of demand or visitors as the trigger for once again resuming hunting and exploiting natural resources such as woodlands and minerals.
In the US some environmental regulations have been relaxed and other governments around the world are likely to ease green penalties as industries seek ways to repair the damage to their balance sheets and stay in business.
Right now the world may be breathing more easily, but the battle for the planet is far from over.