The coronavirus diaries

3rd April 2020

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On BBC Radio 4's Today programme in March, one presenter suggested we look at the impact of coronavirus in a “positive way“ in terms of climate change. As the virus sweeps the globe, it is hard to see the bright side – but they did have a point.

Measures to contain the outbreak in China, for example, wiped out at least quarter of the country's CO2 emissions during a four-week period in January-February, according to analysis by Carbon Brief, and the virus “could have cut global emissions by 200m tonnes of CO2 to date“. Flight suspensions and cancellations cut global CO2 emissions from passenger flights by around 11% (or three million tonnes of CO2) in one two-week period. Some are predicting we could see the first global emissions fall since the 2008-09 financial crisis.

Remember what happened after that, though? The Chinese government launched a construction-heavy stimulus programme and emissions rocketed. Bloomberg has reported that, in some cities, local factories have been given power consumption targets to show 'business as usual'; machinery is running “even as their plants remain empty“.

Let's keep the glass half full, though. Reaction to the crisis has demonstrated what governments can achieve in a short space of time – and when guided by scientific advisors. Imagine if they took the same approach to climate change? As Jon Erickson, an ecological economist at the University of Vermont's Gund Institute, put it in an interview with “If we truly treat climate as an emergency, as we are treating this pandemic as an emergency, we have to have a similar level of international coordination.“

It'll be interesting to see whether some new habits are formed and how they persist

On 10 March, a UN study showed that the world is “way off track meeting either the 1.5°C or 2°C targets“. Air pollution from burning fossil fuels is responsible for more than four million premature deaths a year. Could coronavirus show politicians what can be achieved, and give them the appetite to act? Businesses are certainly responding: staff are working from home; meetings have taken place virtually; reassurances have been made over food security. As one consultant wrote on LinkedIn: “It'll be interesting to see whether this encourages the sorts of change that we might want to make anyway to reduce our contribution to climate change. It'll also be interesting to see whether some new habits are formed and how they persist into the future.“

Prior to the outbreak, some companies had already adjusted travel policies to reduce the number of flights taken by staff. At PR company Greenhouse, for example, employees are offered extra paid travel if they choose slower, low-carbon land or sea options over flying, as part of the Climate Perks Scheme from non-profit Possible. Such a scheme has cost (as well as practical and personal) implications, and not all of us can hitch rides across the Atlantic on racing boats, like Greta Thunberg. However, this outbreak is forcing us to rethink our plans and lifestyles.

People shouldn't be pushed too far, too fast, though, according to Guy Newey, strategy and performance director at government-funded research group Energy Systems Catapult. One of the dangers, he said on the Today programme, is thinking that the “dramatic way“ lifestyles have changed in the face of coronavirus are a template for our future dealing with climate change. “I don't think that's necessarily what people want or would accept,“ he said. “You have to take people on this journey.“

Still, there's nothing wrong with picking more people up. Some 16% of Britons are cutting back on flying, according to research by Swiss bank UBS. Now – as we look for Easter holidays closer to home and discover that virtual meetings can be productive – is the perfect time to encourage these habits to stick. Coronavirus has forced us to cope, so why can't we continue to do so in the name of climate change?

David Burrows is a freelance writer and researcher.

Picture credit: iStock

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