Climate action: learning from the corona response

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

— George Santayana  

In recent weeks the City of New York reported a 50% increase in the number of cyclists traveling in and around the city to avoid using modes of transportation with higher risk of virus spread. Almost overnight the culture of face-to-face professional and social meetings has been all but suspended indefinitely. And as for the impact COVID-19 is having on the aviation industry, well, take a moment and look to the sky for the next airplane you see or hear overhead…. Exactly, not a chemtrail to be seen!

As a result of the curbs on our freedom of movement and assembly, we are learning to adapt at lightning speed. More of us are choosing fresh air peddle-power over stuffy public transportation and even sharing cars. Families and friends are meeting virtually through online platforms and mobile applications. It’s not always perfect, but we’re innovating and this is crucially important for the future deployment of these sorts of connective technologies that move us beyond high carbon physical travel.

For years colleagues have discussed how UNFCCC climate talks could cut their own pollution (without simply offsetting) by finding alternatives to flying 15,000 people around the world several times each year.  The current pandemic has opened this conversation again, and if a COP could happen remotely (see a briefing in this edition by Ed King on COP26). Admittedly we are still some way off replacing physical meeting with immersive virtual interaction, but necessity is often the mother of invention, and I for one would love to see the development of virtual theatres that can connect individuals and whole delegations to meeting around the world without using a drop of fossil fuel. Well, one can dream…  

Markets around the world have tumbled, and the impact of the virus has also been felt on Europe’s carbon price which had taken over a decade to claw back any meaningful valuation of pollution. It feels like the gains that were so hard fought for, to inch these prices upwards have been knocked back in a heartbeat. Yet, due to reduced industrial activity (just like in 2008) we have also seen a significant improvement in air quality in the last weeks and months (see images above). And given that it’s a respiratory infection the world is faced with, it does beg the question, why as a society would we wish to continue the very damaging activities that weaken our ability to fight disease like this in the future?

The current outbreak has done more in terms of slowing (at least in the short term) our dependence on carbon intensive products and services than anytime in modern history. While this is certainly not desirable for even the most fervent climate change activist, it does give us a glimpse of what our globally connected world can achieve when an imminent crisis hits and how rapidly we must therefore adapt.   

Action is said to alleviate anxiety and for many of those trying to tackle our climate crisis we take inspiration in doing whatever we can to prevent the worst that science is predicting for our shared planet. I applaud all medical professionals working on the frontlines of the coronavirus emergency as they save as many lives as possible. Hopefully we can take away some hard learned lessons for our own lifestyles, that may one day prove invaluable to our survival.