While the economy and businesses are rushing to return to normality, the Planet is in no hurry for pollution levels to rise again. It is about time we gave normality a green re-evaluation.
By Veronica Kontopoulou
It is May 2020; the air and water qualities have improved dramatically; the Himalayas are visible from Indian balconies for the first time in decades and videos of wildlife ‘taking over’ urban areas are circulating the Internet. The levels of CO2 in our atmosphere are predicted to decrease by 5,5%, more than in the aftermath of the Second World War or the financial crisis of 2008. Sounds good right? Perhaps, the environment’s recovery is the silver lining in the pandemic chaos. Unfortunately, this is hardly the case.
There is a break to be found in the clouds of each crisis. In the case of COVID-19, it is the environment enjoying a brief break from humanity. By staying at home and travelling less, we have effectively decreased CO2 and NO2 pollution levels in the atmosphere, according to the European Space Agency and NASA. Oil barrels reached a negative price for the first time in American history in a bizarre twist of the slowing down of our economy. From deer in Japan’s urban streets of Nara, to swarms of fish in the now crystal-clear waters of Venice’s canals: With us winding down and staying home, wildlife is reclaiming its natural habitats. The Coronavirus’ positive impact on the environment is more than any climate negotiation could have dreamt of. The link from the slowing down of our socioeconomic activity to nature thriving is almost palpable.
Yet, in the ease of this unintended ‘green’ triumph lurks the danger of the green movement slacking off. The war against straws and single-use plastics is becoming overshadowed by the fear-induced use of short-lived face masks and plastic gloves. Our slowly increasing restlessness and agitation has turned us to the comforts of ordering online, from unnecessary buys to take-away food, sparking up delivery emissions and packaging waste. And with heavy-polluting companies receiving billions to stay afloat, it is looking like we are scheduled for a dangerous return to “business as usual”.
Once we have resolved the COVID-19 pandemic, we will still have a climate crisis to tackle, oceans to protect, and forests to save…
It is May 2020, and while the air and water qualities may have temporarily improved, we are witnessing an unprecedented increase in food and single-use plastic waste. Meanwhile, heavy polluters such as fossil fuel and plastic industries are receiving multimillion-dollar bailouts. The European Airline Bailout Tracker reveals that airlines are expecting a staggering €26 billion in support. Have we missed the opportunity to press the green restart button?
Undeniably, the global Coronavirus pandemic has devastated humanity physically, mentally, and financially. And to an extent, both the economy and the people are eager to return to “business as usual”. But our Planet simply cannot afford that. Greenpeace UK’s Executive Director, John Sauven, says “Once we have resolved the COVID-19 pandemic, we will still have a climate crisis to tackle, oceans to protect, and forests to save […] The normality we were used to won’t pop back into existence without a push, and as we’re going to be pushing, let’s choose a direction to push in”. In an impassioned press release, the Greenpeace director explains that “by using the stimulus as part of a low carbon transition plan or Green New Deal, and thereby making it do double the work for a price we have to pay anyway, we could emerge from beneath the dark cloud that has settled over all of our lives with a new contract between government, business, people, and the planet”.
This is our chance for a green recovery. Both policymakers and individuals can utilise the lessons learned from our “slowed-down” lives. Greenpeace UK’s Mal Chadwick mentions for instance that “Social distancing has forced cities to rethink their streets, turning car-dominated spaces over to walking and biking. When they see the difference it makes, they might never turn back”. This re-thinking of streets is especially visible in the new “car-free” zones in London, which will allow Londoners to move safely while social distancing, without needing a car. The city’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, explained the move: “We have no choice but to rapidly repurpose London’s streets for people. By ensuring our city’s recovery is green, we will also tackle our toxic air which is vital to make sure we don’t replace one public health crisis with another”.
Life on lockdown has been a massive challenge as much to the economy as to our societies. At the same time, it has provided a rare glimpse to a reduced or emission-free future. On one hand it has demonstrated how humanity could rise to the occasion towards a greener future. On the other hand, we have also been exposed to the scale of the challenge that lies ahead. With enough willpower and creativity, governments, businesses as well as individuals can use the lessons learned during these challenging times to make the temporary environmental improvements permanent. Let’s not allow the lockdown to be succeeded by a letdown for Mother Nature.