The green light at the end of the Coronavirus tunnel
Low carbon lead Amy House explains how lessons learned during the COVID-19 crisis can help us to accelerate the transition to a green economy once the pandemic is over.
The COVID-19 outbreak has had tragic consequences for human life and left millions with an uncertain future. The economic and social shock will be felt for years to come, but there is a silver lining we can cling to during these difficult times. The global acts of solidarity to protect each other is proof that rapid collective action is possible at scale, and that together we can have a hugely positive impact on the world around us.
Flattening the carbon curve
Right now all of our time and energy is rightly being devoted to tackling the Coronavirus. But once the pandemic is over a much bigger crisis, the climate emergency, will be waiting for us. The scale of this challenge dwarfs that of COVID-19, but in flattening one curve we are also learning how we can flatten the other.
According to the latest evidence, the worldwide response to the Coronavirus is set to trigger the largest annual fall in global CO2 emissions since records began. With far less traffic on our roads and, even more crucially, in our skies, the demand for oil has plummeted so low that some experts are suggesting that it will bring forward the expected ‘peak’ in global oil use by several years. While there is no cause for celebration given the circumstances, it does show that deep emissions cuts are possible with targeted, co-ordinated action.
Thanks to road traffic in the UK falling to levels not seen for 65 years, we are now experiencing much cleaner air in our towns and cities. In Manchester, pollution from fine particular matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – two dangerous pollutants from petrol and diesel exhausts – is already significantly lower than normally expected for this time of year. This is all the more important at the moment given that there is a direct correlation between air pollution and higher mortality rates from COVID-19. The northern regions of Italy that were most affected by the outbreak also happen to be some of the most polluted parts of Europe, while research from the US has estimated that slightly cleaner air in Manhattan in recent years may already have saved hundreds of lives. The message is clear: if we take care of our environment, our environment takes care of us.
For a significant portion of the workforce, the way we work will perhaps never be the same again. The lockdown is proving that for many of us, commuting to work every day is unnecessary and we can work effectively using virtual tools. Remote working will almost certainly remain a growing trend thanks to the virus, bringing with it less congestion on our roads, more public transport capacity for those who need to travel, and cleaner air for all of us. And while we may complain about the kids interrupting us during conference calls, the truth is that most of us are benefitting from spending more time with our families.
More home-working could also speed up positive changes in our energy system. Heating and lighting individual homes is more demanding on the grid than sharing office spaces, but this is an incentive to accelerate the shift to a more responsive energy network that can adapt to fluctuating supply and demand, encourage small-scale renewables onto the grid and support the creation of innovative new services that turn energy consumers into ‘prosumers’. An energy system dominated by distributed, flexible power sources will also be more resilient to crises like COVID-19 because it will be less dependent on large power plants, which rely on a stable fuel supply.
Without the daily commute we are also finding more time to enjoy our green spaces (while following government guidelines of course!). As if perfectly timed, a new Greater Manchester campaign, My Wild Garden, has recently been launched to help reconnect people with the wildlife in their gardens and local areas. When the pandemic is over, we can harness this renewed awareness of nature to support investment in local green infrastructure.
Sustainable supply chains
It’s not just working practices that have changed. The pandemic is forcing businesses and investors to re-think how they measure success. The amazing acts of generosity and support we’ve seen within the business community over the last few weeks has shown that working together to achieve a common purpose is less difficult than some might previously have thought. According to some experts, the pandemic will likely lead to increased investment in activities which deliver social or environmental value. Even the CEO of BP, Bernard Looney, has declared that the sole purpose of maximising profit “is no longer acceptable” in a post-pandemic world.
There is also emerging anecdotal evidence that companies which have already embraced the sustainability agenda are better protected from the economic impacts of COVID-19. These companies tend to have a better understanding of risks in their supply chain because they are already engaging with their suppliers to improve resilience to other shocks, such as natural disasters or resource shortages.
In a similar way, those who take a ‘triple bottom line’ approach to procurement (valuing people and planet as well as profit) will be much more resilient to future crises than those who focus purely on securing lowest cost supply. As an example, fast fashion has been one of the sectors worst affected by supply chain disruption during the current crisis. Massive amounts of stock are stuck in warehouses, destined never to be worn, and companies are being called out for failing to protect suppliers and workers in the developing world. The environmentally destructive business model of fast fashion is struggling to show resilience in the face of crisis and will have to change as a result.
Of course, we cannot celebrate any of this as a victory for the environment. These changes have been brought about by a human catastrophe, not by society making the right decisions. Besides, any benefits will just be a temporary blip if we choose to return to our old habits when the pandemic is over. Once the lockdown is lifted it will take a monumental effort to get the economy ticking again, and there is a risk that governments will do whatever it takes, even if it means side-lining the environment. But taking one step back to take two steps forward is not an option.
The pressure is now on to ensure that the post-pandemic stimulus packages governments put in place prioritise the shift to a green economy rather than doubling down on fossil fuels. With the right policies in place, hundreds of thousands of new jobs could be created in renewables, energy efficiency, clean transport and green industry. The landmark ‘COP26’ UN climate summit in Glasgow may have been delayed to 2021, but when world leaders finally do meet to negotiate a ramping up of climate commitments, the focus will now be on how we can drive a green recovery from this crisis.
Here in Greater Manchester, our burgeoning green technologies and services sector has the potential to be an economic powerhouse for the city region. From solar panel installers to smart mobility services, hundreds of companies stand ready to support the shift to a climate-friendly economy. Many of them can be found on our virtual Low Carbon Network.
All businesses have a key role to play. We now have proof that less travel is not only possible, but desirable. We should think very carefully about which journeys are essential, and which can be avoided – especially if it involves flying. We know that working from home can be both productive and enjoyable. We know that sustainable supply chains are the most future-proof, and that procurement must prioritise long-term resilience over short-term profit. And we know that the right foundations are in place for a green industrial revolution if we support it. In return we will not only help the planet, but also help ourselves.
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Posted under General Interest and Climate Change and What it Means to You on 22 April 2020