A report from Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment details a recovery strategy in response to COVID-19. The media has described the effect on the planet as the silver lining of this devastating virus, exclaiming the Earth ‘can breathe again!’ There has been an increase in reports of animal sightings in towns and cities, dolphins allegedly swimming in the cleaner waters of Venice, and the air in cities noticeably clearer as pollution has reduced. But, how true is this miraculous environmental restoration? Are we hopelessly looking for positivity in a crisis?
The report acknowledges the lack of data on greenhouse gas (GHG) emission levels in the short time since the pandemic took hold in early 2020. However, there is reliable evidence to support the improvement in our natural environment. The report discusses how fiscal recovery packages could have instant negative effects on GHG emissions, and therefore highlighted the importance of a sustainable strategy post-pandemic. It is too soon to analyse the actual GHG emissions produced during the lockdown, but analysis of fossil fuel consumption and travel patterns are a strong indication, as we will discuss further on.
Governments worldwide have jumped into action to protect their citizens and economy. The UK government quickly implemented the Job Retention (Furlough) scheme, although not until after many businesses had already been forced to make their staff redundant. As a result of redundancies and furloughing, 81% of the global workforce has been affected by COVID-19. The lockdown was another measure brought into place to help reduce the spread of the virus and contain the pandemic. Whereby the public were allowed out of their homes for one form of exercise per day and to shop for essential items only, such as food. The outcome of this has been incredibly detrimental to our economy. Flights ground to a halt, the London Underground closed some of its stations (having to recently agree a government bailout), many small businesses have collapsed and most people are still working from home for fear of a second wave of infection.
The report distinguishes two types of response measures governments may implement in a crisis: rescue and recovery. The former covers the majority and is usually focused on ‘keeping businesses and people alive’, such as the Furlough scheme, business bailouts and the lockdown. The latter refers to ‘reinvigorating the economy once mobility restrictions can be relaxed’. The Oxford Smith School research shows a small percentage of new policies during crises can actually reduce GHG emissions, while an equal percentage increase GHG emissions, but the majority, of 92%, do neither and maintain the status quo. As we know, ‘global GHG emissions must fall by 7.6% every year from 2020 to 2030 to keep temperature increases to less than 1.5°C’, so policies which increase emissions or maintain the status quo should not be passed.
It will be some time before we can see the exact data on how GHG emissions have been affected during the pandemic, in the meantime we can study fuel use and nitrogen dioxide, which is emitted alongside carbon dioxide (CO2) in industrial and automotive combustion. The demand for energy during the pandemic has dropped considerably due to the reduction in travel and people working at home. In addition, offices, shops and other businesses are no longer operating and generating their usual emissions. It is ‘estimated that China’s shutdown in February resulted in a 25% decline in CO2 emissions due to lower coal and oil consumption’.
The pandemic has absorbed media attention, so much so that other pressing issues have been pushed back. Activists and environmentalists have campaigned wholeheartedly for decades to bring climate change to the foreground, but since COVID-19 it has been all but forgotten. Last year, hundreds of thousands of protesters succeeded in getting Parliament to announce a climate emergency, not that we have seen any action from the Government on this statement. Although it appears the Earth is ‘breathing again’, historically, carbon emissions plummet during a crisis and then skyrocket afterwards due to a hasty attempt to restore the economy.
As mentioned, it is common for GHG emissions to fall during a crisis. Evidence for this can be seen throughout history, for example, CO2 emissions fell by an average of 1% during the 2009 Global Financial Crisis and 4% during the Second World War. It is estimated that during the lockdown GHG emissions may fall by a staggering 8% worldwide. Unfortunately, these statistics are not as encouraging as they seem, as, historically, these reductions have been transitory. After the 1% drop in 2009, CO2 emissions then exceeded the annual average of 2.4% growing to 4.5% in 2010, due to ill-placed government efforts to restore domestic economies and lower energy prices.
In an attempt to rebound and return to ‘business as usual’ we could cause a spike in emissions, as can already be seen in China as they ease their lockdown measures and factories have reopened. To ensure this does not happen in the UK, we must invest in clean technologies and implement policies, such as a carbon tax, to accomplish a reduction in pollution. We are at a pivotal moment in history: we have an unprecedented opportunity to tackle climate change. We must implement climate-centred policies and secure a sustainable future for all people and the planet.