The Coronavirus Crisis (Part 3)
One Year Later
Last August, I wrote two articles on the coronavirus pandemic – one explaining how the virus passed from animals to humans, probably via a wildlife market in China, and another exploring how the subsequent lockdowns impacted wildlife and the environment across the world. They were meant to be brief, exploratory articles rather than comprehensive studies and, barring any future major events that directly affected the natural world, I had no plans to write any follow-ups.
But today (23 March 2021), exactly one year after the United Kingdom was placed in its first (but not last) lockdown, I feel compelled to write a third, and hopefully final, part to this series – one exploring what has changed in these past 12 months, what it means for nature, and what might happen going forward.
(Note: This is not designed, by any stretch, to be a thorough analysis of the impact coronavirus has had, and continues to have, on our world; it is simply just my musings, hopes and predictions.)
Covid vs Climate Change
It may seem like a distant memory now, but think back, if you can, to 2019. This year was, in my opinion, one of the first in which climate change was really being pushed to the top of the political agenda, thanks in no small part to Greta Thunberg, school climate strikes, and Extinction Rebellion. It seemed to me that people and politicians had finally realised that it was an imminent threat to life on Earth, and there were some early but promising steps being taken to try and tackle it.
But then something called coronavirus, or covid-19, happened. All of a sudden, humanity was halted in its tracks by an invisible enemy – one that is neither alive nor dead. One crisis superseded the other in importance. Climate change was pushed to the back of our collective minds.
It’s fairly easy to understand why this is. Covid-19 is more visible, at least in terms of its immediate impact, and we believe the threat it poses to us has an end date in the not-too-distant future. It is generally hoped, especially now that vaccine rollouts have started, that the pandemic will be over in a year or so (although it should be pointed out that many of us thought the same thing this time last year as well, and look how wrong we were about that).
Climate change, on the other hand, is more gradual, more insidious, with no end in sight, no obvious light at the end of the tunnel. But it, like coronavirus, will still kill millions of people and cost an obscene amount of money. And although we may have put climate change on the back burner, it certainly hasn’t paused just because of a pandemic.
But back to covid for a moment. Our understanding of the virus, its transmission, and how best to tackle it has been evolving constantly for over a year. And even now, there is much that we do not know. Such gaps in our knowledge, along with the occasional contradictory advice, while understandable, have allowed a deluge of misinformation and conspiracy theories to spread (no, covid-19 is not a bioweapon; no, it wasn’t created by Bill Gates).
Even covid’s origins are still somewhat mysterious; nobody really knows for sure how the virus started, or how it made the jump to humans. However, it was almost certainly the result of the misuse of wild animals. The IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) has made it clear that there is a definite link between emergent viruses and our degradation of the environment. It has been estimated that 1.7 million viruses of potential threat to human life hide within populations of mammals and birds. The more we continue breaking up wild habitats for our own purposes, and the more we allow the illegal wildlife trade to continue, the more likely it is that another devastating pandemic will arise.
Life in Lockdown
We all know the deal by now. The coronavirus pandemic has been bad news for pretty much everything: our physical and mental health, our education, our food systems. It has become a threat to our global economy. It has led to heightened prejudice, xenophobia and racism. And, of course, it has impacted the climate and environment.
I covered some of the effects lockdown has had on the natural world in more detail in Part 2 of this series, and most of that information still stands, but I’ll briefly go over a few of those points again and include updated statistics when necessary.
When covid-19 first began to spread across the world in early 2020, governments were forced to act to try and contain it. Some responded quickly, imposing hard, fast lockdowns and strict border controls that succeeded in suppressing or outright eliminating the virus. But others, perhaps worried about the economical impact of such seemingly radical notions, hesitated too long, leading to the uncontrolled spread of the virus and, consequently, overwhelmed health care systems and many hundreds, if not thousands, of avoidable deaths.
Worldwide lockdowns have certainly had a dramatic effect on regional and international travel over the past year. This has created, or so it is claimed, the biggest carbon crash ever recorded. According to new data, global carbon emissions fell by 6.4%, or 2.3 billion tonnes, in 2020. This is by no means an insignificant amount – it’s roughly equivalent to double Japan’s yearly emissions – but it is still smaller than many climate researchers expected given the scale of the pandemic. And most experts believe that when the pandemic ends, there will be a very strong rebound. Indeed, with many restrictions on movement having already been lifted, air and road travel has bounced back to some extent.
Of course, the 6.4% dip in carbon emissions only occurred because much of the world was forced into lockdown. This year, as restrictions continue to ease, I very much doubt there will be a drop on the same scale. And, as it turns out, a similar-sized dip wouldn’t even be good enough going forward. The United Nations Environment Programme has estimated that in order to prevent the globe from warming by more than 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels – a goal set in the 2015 Paris climate agreement – the world would need to cut carbon emissions by 7.6% per year for the next decade.
So can we prevent 2020 from simply being a tiny aberrant blip in the overall global carbon record? Can we somehow, collectively, continue to curb carbon emissions so that the trajectory starts to head downwards rather than return to its previous position?
It’s unclear what effect the covid crisis will have on our long-term flying habits. Overseas holidays will still be a thing, of course (and I predict a boom in such holidays when international travel restrictions are lifted and the virus is more contained), but perhaps business travel will decrease. Getting on a plane and travelling to another country just for a business meeting that lasts a few hours will, I think, become almost unjustifiable in the future, especially now it has been proven that internet meetings are easier, more efficient, and far less costly.
Road travel, as I touched upon in my previous post, could go either way. Perhaps the fear of contagion, and any continuing social distancing measures, will cause people to shun crowded public transport, resulting in a reliance on single-occupancy vehicles. This will, of course, increase carbon emissions. Or maybe, just maybe, more people will either walk or cycle to work than did before, or they will work from home, all of which will reduce emissions.
One positive effect that has happened as a result of lockdown is that it has encouraged us to connect with and (re)discover the great outdoors. After all, with nowhere else to go, people have opted to go for walks in the countryside or their local parks. I myself, being lucky enough to live within a stone’s throw of the sea, went on many local coastal walks during lockdown (when I wasn’t binge-watching Tiger King or playing Animal Crossing, of course). It’s no secret that spending time in nature and green spaces is profoundly important for our mental wellbeing and life satisfaction: it can reduce stress, reduce the symptoms of depression, boost our immune system, increase our energy levels, and improve sleep. I hope that even after this pandemic is over, people continue getting out into nature to see all the (often hidden) wonders around them.
Road to Recovery
There’s no doubt that the past year has been very challenging for us all. And it would be foolish to think that there won’t be many hard months ahead, not just here in the UK, but across the world. When I wrote the first part in this series, seven months ago, around 775,000 people had died because of covid-19. As of this writing, that figure has risen to 2.72 million.
Obviously, this is a devastating tragedy, but let’s now turn our attention to the future. Can we use the pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns to improve things going ahead? In my opinion, there’s no point simply going back to what it was like before. If nations attempt to return to the endless and unsustainable pursuit of economic growth, there will be increased consumption of non-renewable resources, higher levels of pollution, higher levels of global warming, and even greater loss of wild habitat. A new approach is required: a structural transformation in human economic management; a systemic change in how humanity powers and feeds itself. At the very least, now is the time to separate ourselves from our dependency on fossil fuels and to start generating more of our energy from clean, renewable sources.
Although it has been speculated that the economic fallout caused by covid-19 may slow investment in green energy technologies, there is cause for some cautious optimism. Surveys around the world show that an ever-increasing number of people are now keen for their governments to prioritise people and the planet over profit alone. And some forward-thinking countries are already planning to kick-start their economies and boost employment with new, greener infrastructure projects.
If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that, with the right motivation, profound change can happen in a very short space of time. After all, who would have thought, a little over a year ago, that air and road travel across the globe would be massively reduced within a matter of weeks? That shops, restaurants and entertainment venues would be completely closed for months on end? That people all over the world would quickly grow accustomed to only leaving their homes when absolutely necessary?
We need that same motivation, energy and commitment to tackle climate change. Many people, thankfully, already have that drive. But some of the most important people – the ones that are required to make real, systemic change; the ones in power – often don’t. Politicians these days often speak of ‘returning to normal’. But that normal must be different from the one we knew pre-covid. ‘Normal’ wasn’t good enough; it wasn’t working. If we default back to how things were before, it will have been a missed opportunity. And by the time we get another one (as we surely will when the next pandemic sweeps the globe), it may already be too late.
We were prepared to change our way of life almost overnight to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities. We must now be prepared to do the same for our planet.