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The environment in a post-lockdown worldIMAGE: SHUTTERSTOCKEarlier this year, the world entered uncharted waters when a coronavirus outbreak turned into a global pandemic. This has placed the citizens of most industrialised countries in an unprecedented position, with home lockdowns, social distancing, and unfolding economic impacts whose ramifications are starting to emerge.
The virus is affecting nearly everything, to a greater or lesser degree, including how environmental issues can be tackled.by Martin OliverThe lockdown has led to changing perceptions of the surrounding natural environment. Traffic noise has decreased. Some people are hearing urban birdsong for the first time in many years. Others have used the time away from work to pay attention to nature in a way that didn’t happen when they were busy.
In various parts of the world, animals have responded to the lockdown-driven absence of people from the streets of cities and towns by venturing into settlements. There have been Sika deer in the Japanese city of Nara. Macaque monkeys in Lopburi, Thailand. Coyotes in San Francisco. And goats in the North Wales town of Llandudno. All of this has challenged the notion of human domination over the built environment. IMAGE: MACAQUE MONKEYS SHUTTERSTOCK_1579472914Plummeting travel emissionsInternational flights were among the first to largely disappear, with global flight figures down 62% between April 2019 and April 2020. Flight connections remain severed between many countries, with no estimate of when they may resume. Aviation has been calculated at 2.4% of the world’s carbon emissions, but due to a complex phenomenon called ‘radiative forcing’ this figure is normally doubled to estimate the real climate impact.
As the coronavirus crisis unfolded, cruise ships became a particular hotspot. Of these, the Ruby Princess experienced at least 662 cases, with 22 passengers dying, and more people on the Australian mainland becoming infected after passengers were allowed ashore. Despite numerous cruise cancellations, the industry is anticipating a resumption of business, notwithstanding the logistical difficulties this would involve. Compared to flights, cruises are an even bigger energy guzzler, at roughly three times as carbon-polluting per kilometre travelled. The heavy bunker fuel commonly used is extremely high in sulphur, and air quality on the area of the deck behind the smokestack has been measured as comparable to that in the world’s most polluted cities. Other environmental concerns include incidents where sewage, oily waste, and plastic garbage have been illegally discharged into the oceans. IMAGE: CRUISE SHIP SMOKE SHUTTERSTOCKTrafficA notable effect of the lockdown was a major drop in kilometres driven. Roads emptying of traffic. In some cities a near-elimination of congestion. Besides a drop in fuel demand and consequent carbon emissions, this has resulted in far lower levels of harmful particulate air pollution and similarly large reductions in nitrogen dioxide emissions. According to Stanford University scientist Marshall Burke, in China alone two months of lockdown-induced pollution curbs resulted in an estimated 77,000 lives saved.
Before-and-after photos of cities in India and China showed clearer air in place of smog. One dramatic example was in Punjab, where the Himalayas became visible at a distance of more than 160 kilometres for the first time in decades. Re-thinking the cityWhen the coronavirus crisis began, public transport suddenly became a knotty challenge due to the need to apply social distancing to what is often a crowded means of getting about. This has prompted some people to drive who would not normally do so. However, it has also led others to walk or cycle as a means of transport, offering both environmental and health benefits.
A shift towards car-free streets has been underway for a long time, especially in Europe. COVID-19 has accelerated it. The coronavirus has prompted a re-appraisal of urban transport. It has provided a taste of what largely car-free streets are like. Several cities have introduced bike or pedestrian routes, either temporarily or permanently. These include:
Milan – the first European city to go into lockdown is pursuing its ‘Open Roads’ program, encouraging walking, cycling, and public transport. It planned to convert 35 kilometres of road, mid 2020.
Paris – created 650 kilometres of pop-up ‘corona cycleways’. Some of these may become permanent.
Bogota in Colombia – opened 47 miles of temporary cycle routes, and converted 17 miles of car lanes to bike routes.
New York – in May 2020 it made 40 miles of streets car-free; mostly those close to parks. There are plans to expand this network to 100 miles within months. IMAGE: SMOG SHANGHAI CHINA 2018 HOLGER | UNSPLASHVirtual meetingsAnother consequence of the pandemic has been the sudden emergence of the online meeting. A great lockdown alternative to the traditional in-person meeting around a table. This also applies to virtual events, conferences, workshops, and protests. Many people have been downloading and using the software for the first time.
Environmentally, online meetings are obviously very low-carbon because they can remove the need for travel, sometimes cutting out long drives or flights. However, online get-togethers are not carbon-free, largely due to the energy used by data centres to power the internet.
Also, unlike face-to-face meetings, online meetings have several risks that come with the technology, including technical glitches, hackers, and privacy issues.
After the COVID-19 crisis is over, the business world may revert to its old habits. Equally, the online paradigm may win out, and the virus may permanently shift meetings in a largely environmentally beneficial direction. Similarly, the common lockdown behaviour of working from home may become a preferred future option, where it is offered. IMAGE: SHUTTERSTOCKGoing beyond stuffDuring Australia’s strictest lockdown period in March– April, in an unprecedented development, people were urged to go out only when necessary and to limit purchases to essentials. This represented a radical shift from the normal consumer-oriented behaviour being pursued only a few weeks earlier. The resulting steep fall in consumption translated into a drop in planet-warming emissions due to large numbers of items not being purchased.
China’s main lockdown month, when most manufacturing shut down, was February. It showed a 25% drop in the country’s carbon emissions. A satellite photo taken then showed a massive drop in the nitrogen dioxide pollution in the country’s industrial zones. Since then, much manufacturing has resumed, but has been depressed by reduced demand in China and around the world.
According to figures in the May edition of Nature Climate Change, global CO2 emissions in April 2020 were down 17% when compared to April 2019. Australia’s comparative carbon reduction reached 28% in April, and in the UK there was an even larger 31% drop. However, as things return closer to normal, these figures are likely to creep back up; the current global forecast is for a drop of 4-7% for the year as a whole, depending on how and when restrictions are lifted. IMAGE: SCOTT RODGERSON | UNSPLASHSo what were people doing when they were taking an unexpected lockdown break?
They tried to be content staying where they were, sometimes alone, with what they owned. This necessitated an inward focus far removed from the normal work-and-consumption pattern. Yoga and meditation saw an increased interest. Breadmaking took off. Prompted in part by empty shelves encountered, many backyard areas were converted into food gardens. The general tone was increased selfreliance, and there was widespread mutual aid.
One question is whether Australians will be keen to resume their old busy habits when lockdown is over, or whether elements of a simpler home-focused life may remain. A further consideration is whether such a home-focused lifestyle is possible on a broad scale within the existing economic framework.
Fossil fuel interests have been hit particularly hard since the start of the pandemic. Coal has had a challenging time because it was often the first energy source to be dropped when electricity demand fell, due to being more expensive than its competitors.
This has eroded the market value of coal mining companies.
The oil price has crashed, largely as a result of low demand from reduced travel. On April 18th it went into negative territory, bottoming out at about US $40. ProtestsIn the US there have been some anti-lockdown protests, emboldened by support from Donald Trump. Other protests have occurred in Europe and various countries, including Australia.
Similarities have been noticed between these groups and the climate sceptic movement. Before he retired in May, radio personality Alan Jones said on-air, "We now seem to be facing the health version of global warming. Exaggeration in almost everything." In the UK, Piers Corbyn, a prominent climate denier, was arrested twice at anti-lockdown protests during May.
A survey by the US blog DeSmog looked at 70 groups and individuals supporting the anti-lockdown movement, and found a large overlap with climate deniers, some of which are corporate-funded right-wing think-tanks. For both issues, large business interests stand to be majorly impacted. In Australia, much of the pressure to end lockdowns came from Murdoch’s News Corp. Also from the Institute of Public Affairs, which is funded by a range of corporate interests including fossil fuel companies. Both have also been actively messaging against climate action. IMAGE: SHUTTERSTOCKStimulus and green new dealCOVID-19 is leading the world into an economic downturn. It could take the shape of a recession or a more serious depression. Governments around the world are softening this impact via stimulus measures designed to give the ailing economy a needed boost. There is now increasing support for marrying this to a much-needed environmental spending package, often dubbed a ‘green recovery’. This could be a way to harness the economic impacts of the coronavirus to curb a 2020 carbon emissions reduction beyond the estimated 4-7%.
This recovery has parallels with the Green New Deal being championed in the US by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey. It is a reference to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, America’s massive employment-creation infrastructure program launched during the 1930s Great Depression. It has an ambitious goal for rolling out renewables with a view to reaching carbon-neutrality within ten years. It is perhaps made more unwieldy by also having a range of ambitious social policy aims.
Disappointingly, Australia’s response has so far lacked a significant environmental dimension, either from the Commonwealth or the states. Instead, federal authorities are looking at gas as an engine of economic recovery, or more cynically, they could be described as exploiting the pandemic, and the current suspension of Parliament, to aggressively push a pro-fossil-fuel agenda. The National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) has several former fossil fuel executives, including from the gas industry. In May a leaked NCCC report called for a massive expansion of Australia’s gas infrastructure to be underwritten by taxpayers, who would be exposed to any risks. More questionsAnother questionable economic stimulus initiative has been the Planning System Acceleration Program in New South Wales. Under this, major development projects – some locally unpopular – will be fast-tracked toward approval under the banner of ‘cutting red tape’. This is while local governments have their decision-making powers restricted.
However, there is now pressure coming from Australia’s financial sector, urging a recovery stimulus in line with the Paris climate goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. The Climate Council has issued a report titled Primed For Action that is focused on a ‘resilient recovery’, and urges the use of stimulus money to aggressively expand renewable energy infrastructure.
To provide a comparison, as a response to the global financial crisis in the late 2000s, Labor deliberately applied a green angle to its stimulus response, with an Energy Efficient Homes Package that featured free home insulation and subsidised hot water systems. While the home insulation program in particular was plagued with controversy, Labor’s package shows how environmentally positive projects can be a key part of recovery measures. Beyond economic business-as-usualTackling COVID has curbed economic activity, and reined in carbon emissions. But it has happened in a fairly uncontrolled way that has not always been equitable for those worst-affected. In countries without a proper welfare system, such as the US, many are suffering due to workplaces suspending operations. However, other more carefully designed routes towards emissions curbs are possible, and this may be the last opportunity for a while to redesign the world economy beyond growth in any meaningful way.
One city pioneering a new economic model is Amsterdam. In April they embraced Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics model as a post-virus strategy and basis for guiding its policy decisions. Doughnut Economics has a goal of meeting human needs within a zone that respects planetary ecological limits. It is inconsistent with exponential growth. Amsterdam’s adoption has taken this model out of a theoretical context for it to be road-tested in the real world.
According to UN Environment Programme figures, the world is needing a 7.6% reduction in carbon emissions, year-on-year, from 2020 to 2030, to meet the Paris 1.5ºC target. Carbon reduction figures resulting from the coronavirus, while encouraging, demonstrate that voluntary individual changes in behaviour will not be sufficient. Instead, this task would necessitate deep structural changes to the economy and society. It would also probably require society-wide public support for an anti-consumer degrowth-oriented way of living. This would certainly cause resistance and push-back.
The coronavirus has provided a taster of some of the disruptive changes needed to tackle the climate crisis. It also offers pointers to how people might respond to having their lives disrupted. ResourcesPrimed For Action: A Resilient Recovery for Australia www.climatecouncil.org.au/resources/primed-for-actionMartin Oliver is based in Lismore, and writes on a range of environmental, health and social issues. He takes the view that sustainability is about personal involvement, whether this involves making our lives greener, lobbying for change at a political level, or setting up local eco-initiatives.