I know that there are many articles on the internet discussing the implications of COVID-19 on the planet, and our time-limited efforts to save it, almost all written by people more specialised and knowledgeable than myself. Instead, what I hope to put to you today a less detailed but more overarching outlook on the situation and how we, as environmentalists, can make the best of it.
With many countries shutting down borders to international travel and millions under lockdown, scientists at the Global Carbon Project predict a reduction in world carbon emissions by potentially more than 5% this year, a significant decrease considering that emissions have been steadily rising by 1.8% on average annually.
Further, air pollution, that kills an estimated 8.8 million people every year, is freefalling. Satellite imagery from NASA shows NO2 concentrations dropping dramatically over urban areas in China. In fact, it was thought that the measures implemented to contain Coronavirus might save more lives through reductions in air pollution than through actually preventing transmission, according to the Hugo Observatory (although I’m not sure whether that prediction still stands in light of how the pandemic has developed).
Viral videos have circulated social media showing wildlife returning to empty towns, starting to fill the spaces left by humans. While many, such as the Dolphins filmed returning to Venetian Canals, were false (and in fact were filmed hundreds of miles away) there have been plenty of reliable recorded cases.
In Venice itself, where motorised transport has been hugely reduced, the water is crystal clear – silt is no longer being churned up from the bed. With the clearer water have arrived small shoals of fish, and Cormorants that feed on them. In Sardinia Wild Boar have been roaming the streets, in Wales Mountain Goats have been terrorising towns, and in Vancouver Orca have been returning closer to shore than witnessed in the last 50 years.
With humans sealed safely inside our pods, our deserted urban landscape is turning into a modern Chernobyl.
But I’m afraid those looking for a silver lining from this pandemic will find the virus is by no means all good news for the environment.
The projected reduction in emissions, if it does occur, is a temporary blip in an ever-increasing trend. A single year of reduced emissions is of little relevance in global warming – what matters is our cumulative anthropogenic emissions over time, our ‘carbon budget’ that we’re quickly using up. In fact, by virtue of having reduced particulates in the air, temperatures could temporarily increase, as those particles normally reflect some of the incoming radiation into Earth’s atmosphere.
What’s more, overall, COVID-19 may well increase emissions long term through the rebound effect – where, in an effort to reboot their economies, countries relax environmental legislation. This is already happening in China and the US, the greatest polluters in the world.
Especially applicable to those of us in the conservation movement, political lobbying has largely come to a standstill, as we respect governments’ need to focus on the pressing global health crisis. Conservation charities are also going to go through a very difficult period, and will need all the help they can get.
The most worrying concern that I have, is what individuals and authorities are trying to get away with while international attention is diverted. I have heard accounts of Bolsonaro, Brazil’s President (a rather nefarious individual at the best of times) taking the opportunity to forcefully evict indigenous people from shanty towns, before bulldozing their homes to the ground. There are fears that poaching may increase as wildlife parks around the world close to the public. In our very own country, HS2 is powering on with its deforestation program, felling beloved ancient woodland and sending bat roosts and bird nests tumbling to the ground.
ENVIRONMENTAL NOT-SO-SUPER YEAR?
Perhaps the issue of the greatest relevance to campaigners and activists is the postponement of all the major environmental UN Summits scheduled for this year. We were due landmark meetings on oceans, biodiversity, sustainable development and climate change. It was meant to be an ‘environmental super year’ that activists had been gearing up to for months.
The delay again has a variety of implications and has been met with mixed reactions. On one hand, we face such urgent timescales that a delay of even a few months is a crushing blow.
However, there are some potential advantages. The US presidential election is due on Nov 3rd, so there is a chance (please, please, please!) that a Democrat might be in power, in which case the USA would likely rejoin the Paris Agreement and pursue more ambitious reductions, leading political leaders in other countries to adopt stronger plans as well. It will also give campaigners time to adjust to the situation and better prepare to influence decisions.
A GREEN RECOVERY
A particular opportunity presented by the pandemic is the chance to redesign our economy as it is rejuvenated: to put it through, as Caroline Lucas puts it, a ‘green recovery’. There will soon come some big decisions to be made by the Chancellor as to where money shall be invested, and those decisions will determine whether we run down the same tracks as the after 2008 depression (seeing emissions accelerate), or whether we take this unprecedented opportunity to radically change our economy and start to steer the ship away from the looming iceberg. We must, above all else, ensure we don’t solve one crisis by piling fuel on another.
Depending on how the situation develops, the summits next year may be timed well to influence that recovery for many countries around the world.
But I hope also that lockdown will make a lasting impression on society: that we will not go back to business as before, because we can’t afford to. Governments now can no longer deny the ability to make drastic changes of the type that the climate crisis demands. Companies may have seen potential to reduce unnecessary travel in their operations. People, now savouring their rationed outdoor time, might reconnect with nature and value it more than they otherwise would have done.
A TIME FOR REFLECTION
Finally, bearing all of the above in mind, what does this mean for campaigners?
We now all find ourselves with the prospect of being housebound for several months, unable to penetrate the media or influence our preoccupied politicians.
I see this as an unfortunate opportunity. A chance to reflect on lobbying strategies and how to be more effective. A chance to develop our understanding of the science behind and politics surrounding everything we’re fighting for. And foremost, a chance to build wider international communities and stronger local communities.
Political involvement of any sort keeps you very busy, trying to keep track of any developments and changes. This might be the most time we get given to prepare for anything, ever again. And it so happens to occur just before what may be the most important year in our lifetime for environmental politics.
I wish everyone the best over the coming months. Keep safe.