Covid: Catalyst for Climate Action?

By Harris Cumming

THREE million deaths worldwide. Thousands left with long term side effects. Seemingly endless periods of isolation and loneliness. These are just some of the cruel realities which the Covid pandemic inflicted upon us over the last year. However, against this backdrop of death and tragedy there were glimmers of hope and reassurance for another of humanity’s plights: climate change.

As much of the planet’s population were forced inside and away from environmentally damaging forms of transport, mother nature gave a sigh of relief. Images of waters clearing, smog lifting and animals returning to their natural habits, put into stark focus how environmentally damaging we usually are as species. But could this be enough to finally make us sit up and take action? Environmental charities and experts argue that it could, but more importantly should, make us think differently about how we treat the planet.

One such charity, Keep Scotland Beautiful, believes that many people want to see positive environmental changes in the way we behave post pandemic.

Tim Mullens, spokesperson, says: “Many people are calling for a green recovery from Covid. They don’t want to see things go back to the way they were before Covid in terms of the environment and travel. Obviously we all want to be able to carry out our lives again and be able to meet people and socialise, there’s no doubt about that, but there is also real enthusiasm in doing things differently, recovering from Covid in a sustainable and green way.”

Keep Scotland Beautiful also argues that the atmosphere in 2021 may be primed for positive change.

Mullens adds: “This year is extremely important and significant for climate action, as COP26 comes to Glasgow this Autumn. We need the decision makers at COP26 to make bold decisions about the future, to create a greener, fairer, and more just planet for all of us.”

Dr Michael K. Orbach, Professor Emeritus of Marine Affairs and Environmental Policy at Duke University, thinks the pandemic could make some people reconsider the way they work and travel after restrictions are lifted.

He says: “I think there is a larger phenomenon of people realising they can work from home and in many cases would prefer to work from home. So I think that kind of behaviour could become regularised post pandemic, which would obviously reduce emissions.”

Although the professor questions whether this decision will be a conscious environmental effort, or more a matter of convenience.

He adds: “In terms of people in general realising the reason that they should not do many of the things they did before the pandemic, is to reduce their carbon footprint, I am not so sure.”

Dr Martin Bunzl, Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University and expert in climate change policy, believes that while the reduction in travel – which the pandemic may incite in years to come – is positive, it will not make a significant difference to the overall issue.

He asserts: “The reason it doesn’t make that much of a difference is because the change in lifestyle of the students and middle-class people in wealthy nations (such that can work from home) is not representative of the global population. The global population as a whole doesn’t have that kind of option.”

In terms of the impediments to climate action, Dr Bunzl stresses that a change in government attitude is one of the most important factors.

He says: “I think climate action is more a matter of government will rather than individual will. A lot of government policies are top-down policies that don’t depend on individuals signing on.”

Clearly experts are divided on the pandemic’s potential to encourage climate action. However they all agree on the importance of change itself.

Citing the rising sea levels across the globe, Dr Orbach highlights the sort of havoc climate change will wreak in the future if we continue to turn a blind eye.

He states: “If you look at what I believe to be the most likely prediction for sea-level rise by 2100, which is about two metres in most coastal places, that is going to literally drown most of these areas of the world.”

While Dr Bunzl says we have already caused significant irrevocable damage to our planet, and we must act now to stop it going any further.

He adds: “We have clearly done damage that is irreversible. For example, we are currently living in a period of mass species extinction and the Greenland ice sheet is melting and will not freeze back up unless we go into another ice age.”

In the last year, we as a species, have demonstrated our incredible resilience and ability to adapt and overcome huge challenges – developing an effective vaccine from scratch in less than 12 months. Therefore, if we can find a solution to our own health crisis, what is stopping us from finding one for the health of our planet?

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