In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed our fraught relationship with the environment.
Changes due to climate change, wanton destruction of the natural world, and exploitation of species world have brought wildlife into contact with people. According to the head of the United Nations Environment Programme, Inger Andersen, “Our continued erosion of wild spaces has brought us uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbour diseases that can jump to humans.” It’s likely we’ll see more ‘zoonotic’ disease outbreaks occurring.
Regardless of the cause, the COVID-19 pandemic is now our reality and, in addition to the deaths directly attributed to it, has caused misery and hardship to large numbers of people – that is itself unsustainable.
However, we also hear stories about the benefits to the environment of lockdown. As travel is restricted and global economies are forced to slow, the demand for coal and oil has reduced to levels lower than they have been for many years. People in northern Indian cities report seeing the Himalayas for the first time due to reductions in air pollution; and satellite images show the quality of air in global cities at levels not seen in decades. The shocking conditions and exploitation of wildlife in some markets in China has also been brought to the fore.
There’s even been kangaroos roaming central Adelaide as we stay at home (and before you say it, yes this is unusual for Adelaide).
Waiting for the bounce
A bigger question longer term, then, is: will these environmental benefits persist or will the pendulum swing back to business as usual after COVID-19, with the environment again at the back of the queue?
We’ve had false dawns before. The Kyoto Protocol in 2008 was designed to limit global greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s success was more the fact that it coincided with a global downturn in economic activity due to the Global Financial Crisis than any kind of environmental coming of age.
Once we saw off the GFC we were back to where we were before, with the economy ahead of all else and fossil fuel emissions continuing their inexorable rise.
This time might it be different? Certainly COVID-19 has shown us the extent of our global footprint and while lockdown-induced carbon reductions aren’t cause for celebration, they do demonstrate how quickly we can turn the tap off if needs must.
A short-term reduction in emissions forced upon us by dire circumstance, however, isn’t a substitute for a structural change to the global economy from one that literally costs the earth to one that operates in partnership with it.
The way back from lockdown
So, as economies begin to reopen, what does it mean for the environment longer-term and does it enable a post-crisis win-win for both the planet and us? There are two parts to this.
The first is that COVID-19 has shown us that aside from the very real economic and social pain of lockdown, that certain aspects of lockdown life are actually good for both us and the planet. The need to obtain goods and services locally that has encouraged greater self-sufficiency in food production, more support for certain local businesses and less profligacy.
Online meetings and videoconferencing have furthermore proven to be surprisingly good substitutes for face-to-face meetings with all the attendant reductions in travel and fossil fuel emissions that they entail.
Behaviour change experts tell us that habits can take as little as 21 days to form, and in just over two months that a new habit can become firmly entrenched. By the time lockdown is lifted many of these behaviours we have been forced to adopt will, to a greater or lesser extent, hopefully remain intact, and business models will have adapted to a new way of operating. The environment will benefit as a result.
In terms of what COVID-19 means for an issue like climate change more broadly, expert opinion is divided. Some suggest that as fossil fuel prices have plummeted due to less demand plummet (in some cases into negative territory), it makes the financial case for renewables less compelling.
Others suggest that low oil prices sound the death knell for fossil fuels, and that renewables and related technologies like electric vehicles will be the obvious beneficiaries.
The one thing that all agree on is the fact that what governments and economies do next in terms of investment will be crucial.
The government’s moves will dictate the result
Stimulus packages and support both for those doing it tough and for essential services of course take precedence in these challenging times, but it is how we choose to use additional discretionary stimulus funds that will define the future for the environment.
Invest in maintaining the status quo and we continue on our inexorable path towards a warmer, less stable climate with all of its associated threats to habitats, species and people. By 2050, expect the damage to the Australian economy to top $A762 billion.
Invested wisely, stimulus funds can rebuild what we had, but better, serving the dual purpose of reviving the economy and accelerating our transition to a low carbon world. For that, we need to give preference to renewables and associated technologies, and perhaps phase out subsidies for fossil fuels.
And we must not forget that unchecked climate change could also push humans into new wilderness areas, increasing the likelihood of more diseases jumping from animals to humans. And that could lead us back full circle to where this conversation began.
The current pandemic is a wakeup call for many sustainability issues, and a huge opportunity to fast-track Australia’s shift towards more renewable energy. While tough decisions needed be made to control the spread of the pandemic, choosing to take this path is even more critical. The consequences of not could be far greater.
This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.
Tim Jarvis is an international leader in the field of environmental sustainability.
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