What we can learn from the Covid-19 lockdown for the longer-term restrictions in our normal way of life that are likely to arise from climate breakdown? Are we heading for a climate lockdown? I explore my thinking in this article.
Although now being eased, the restrictions imposed in most countries in response to the Coronavirus outbreak have been significant. It will be interesting to see if the restrictions were in place for long enough to have led to permanent changes in our lifestyles or if we will just go back to normal. There is no doubt the UK government would like us to get back to business as usual as soon as possible to avoid or limit the worst impacts on the economy and already we are being urged to consume our way out of recession. But many of us recognise that business as usual is not an option for the longer term.
Many commentators are suggesting that more workers and their employers will have identified the benefits of working from home. This could have a long-term impact on commuter travel and on the commercial office sector. These changes may be beneficial when we look at climate breakdown as the emissions from travel and offices may be reduced. But the converse is that the emissions from our houses, which may be less thermally efficient than our offices, will increase so the overall benefit may be limited. It is also clear that the worldwide lockdown has only slowed our emissions. We have not reduced the quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Beyond these changes, what can we learn from the restrictions that were imposed to avoid the worst effects of Covid-19 and the effects that will arise as a result of climate breakdown?
Same, but different?
We are being urged to see the links between a global pandemic and climate breakdown. One can make us much more susceptible to the other and both are symptoms of serious disruption to the natural systems that underpin everything we do. But I am more concerned with how much of a blueprint the lockdown provides for when the effects of climate change begin to take effect. During a recent webinar, Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the Committee on Climate Change suggested that some of the effects of climate change are now inevitable – we have not taken enough action to avoid them and we will have to find ways to adapt. Adaptation will involve changes in our way of life.
A key difference between climate breakdown and Covid-19 is the notice of the changes. Statistically, we are told, a pandemic was overdue but we had no idea what it would be, how severely it would affect us and when it would take hold. So we had the opportunity to prepare but only in a general sense. However, we have known about climate breakdown and its potential consequences for many years. It is 26 years since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was ratified and we are currently preparing for the 26th Conference of the Parties to that Convention. We could have been much more prepared for climate breakdown and may have been able to avoid some of the changes that are likely to affect us.
What can we expect of climate breakdown? If we manage the transition to a low-carbon world effectively, the changes ought to be gradual and controllable. We can change the way we heat our homes and the way we travel for work and leisure. We can travel less and as flying becomes less acceptable, holidaying closer to home may become the norm, although the long-term outlook for tourism as an industry is less certain both at home as well as abroad. The types of food we are able to buy from the supermarkets may change and we may have to get used to fewer commodities being imported. The range and quantity of consumer goods may be reduced. We will probably have to get used to appliances lasting longer and being repaired rather than replaced.
So we can already begin to see the correlation between the enforced lockdown resulting from trying to manage a pandemic and what may happen in the near future. We have become used to travelling less and to a significant reduction in the number of flights available. For those living near airports and under aircraft flight paths, this has improved the quality of life considerably with fewer emissions and reduced exposure to noise. The roads were, for a period of time quiet which reduced emissions of carbon dioxide and other harmful pollutants. Many more people have come to recognise the benefits of slower travel on foot or by bike and there has been some reconnection with the natural world.
Covid-19 exposed some of the frailties of extended supply chains and just-in-time working and as a result, some organisations may rethink the way they work. They may need to retain a larger inventory of parts than they have been used to and, perhaps, seek manufacturers and suppliers closer to home. Making this change now will prepare them for further disruption due to climate breakdown. Some businesses will, inevitably, not survive but many people are beginning to realise that the transition to a low-carbon economy can create a different set of jobs that may be more rewarding than those that currently exist.
Work patterns will change with more people working from home, provided there is adequate investment in the infrastructure needed to support this. Working hours may change with us moving towards a shorter or more flexible working week.
Shops, restaurants and entertainment venues closed as a result of Covid-19 are now opening up and are having to operate very differently to keep their customers safe while the virus is still circulating in the population. In the longer term, these businesses will have to find significantly different ways of working and many of them may not survive. We may find that it is the smaller, more agile and less heavily indebted businesses that will thrive in an age of Covid-19 and climate breakdown whilst the bigger businesses may succumb to competition from new innovators and disruptors.
In a managed transition to a post-carbon world, there will be more leisure time and the opportunity to reconnect with the natural world and with our surroundings. Many people have commented on the benefits to health and wellbeing that have come about as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown and these benefits can be multiplied as many of us get used to a different pace of life.
However, if we do not strive now to decarbonise our economies and to complete that process within the next few years, we will face an unmanaged and unmanageable transition to a post-carbon world.
There is little evidence from across the world that the transition is being managed effectively. There still seems to be a lack of awareness of the changes that will happen and the speed at which they will hit us. Scientists are warning that the target of the Paris Agreement, to maintain the global temperature at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, is now unlikely to be met and some governments seem to accept much greater levels of heating. If this is the case, the transition will be rapid, unplanned and we will enter the post-carbon world unprepared for its effects.
A major difference between the Covid-19 lockdown and the changes that will arise from climate breakdown is that the current restrictions are likely to end. We may have to operate under some restrictions for several more months and possibly stretching into a couple of years but, eventually, our scientists and medical specialists will, if they do not find a vaccine, be able to work out the best way to treat the virus, to manage its worst effects and to help most people to recover.
Unlike a virus, there is no vaccine for climate breakdown! There will, almost certainly, be things we can do to alleviate some of the effects in a similar way to the treatments that are and will be found for treating Covid-19. These may lead to changes and adjustments to the restrictions that we face. Many of the mitigation measures we are currently adopting – but at too slow a pace – will remain important. Examples include the electrification of our vehicle fleet and the growth of car clubs and other vehicle sharing; the move to renewable energy generation and smart grids; upgrading the capacity of our homes and buildings to retain heat; and the continued growth of walking and cycling for shorter journeys. But we will also have to find ways to adapt to a significant rise in sea levels, different weather patterns, increased heat and new food growing conditions coupled with a possible increase in pests and diseases.
With an outbreak of disease, we know what we are facing. There is a single issue to address and to devise a solution to. With climate breakdown, the issues will come at us from many different directions. We cannot predict where or when severe weather events will occur. We can assume that the south eastern US, for example, will continue to be affected by hurricanes but will the hurricane season extend? Will the range and severity of the hurricanes change? Will new areas of the world be affected by hurricanes or severe storms? In the UK, global heating is welcomed by some who envisage mediterranean conditions in the Lake District but the amount of cold water entering the oceans from the melting Greenland ice cap may lead to much colder conditions.
An added complication is that, the longer we take to find a vaccine for Covid-19 and administer that vaccine to nearly 8 billion people, the more likely it is that we may still be trying to manage the effects of a pandemic as climate breakdown begins to take effect. We may have to find ways to manage these global shocks concurrently.
In an increasingly unequal society, the effects will be greater for those less able to manage them. This is true globally but also within the UK and other countries where the impact of climate breakdown will be felt most by the poor and the disadvantaged. To avoid this, we must continue to find ways of overcoming inequality and speed up our response. If we continue to do the bare minimum in terms of mitigating the emissions of greenhouse gases, levels of other air pollutants will also continue to rise and the effects will be felt disproportionately by the less well off.
It is unlikely that restrictions on our way of life as a result of climate breakdown will be government-led. In response to Covid-19, restrictions were imposed and can be eased or tightened by government to manage the challenge. This is unlikely to be the scenario with climate breakdown – the restrictions are likely to be driven by the conditions and be more and more onerous. Our ability to operate in the ways that we have become used to will disappear and we may not have time to adapt to one challenge before another comes along.
We will also, concurrently, have to deal with the related issue of biodiversity loss.
Adapting to change
But we will adapt. We have shown our ability to live under changing conditions and to evolve many times since modern humans first appeared about 300,000 years ago. It will take time and as more and different shocks occur, the changes may become more difficult to adapt to. And there is a real danger that if the changes are not managed correctly, if societies are not informed about what is going on and involved in the decision-making, people will object, perhaps violently. This is probably not imminent but it is certainly possible in the next 20 to 50 years. The UK government was late to impose a Covid-19 lockdown for fear of the public reaction to draconian restrictions on our freedom. They are risking much more serious civil unrest by not recognising the dangers posed by climate change and managing the transition effectively.
Is this inevitable? If we do not take action quickly and match the commitments made by government with effective policies to take us in the right direction, almost certainly. But as we learn to live with Covid-19 there is a real opportunity to build back better, to tread much more lightly on the planet than we have hitherto and to continue to reap the benefits so many people have identified as a result of the enforced lockdown. Less traffic on the roads means less noise pollution and less air pollution and wildlife can continue to recover from the way we have ravaged it over the past hundred years. We can take advantage of the green spaces and the woodlands that so many of us have come to value once more.
Less air travel means we have to become more grounded in our own space and it also means less air pollution and noise – particularly in the vicinity of airports. Less shipping means we may again have to get used to seasonal produce grown locally but which will be fresher and much less likely to be affected by chemicals as we will be unable to produce the quantity of herbicides and pesticides. There are so many more advantages of managing a reduction in our carbon dioxide emissions.
The potential for a climate lockdown is very real and the consequences may be very serious but there is also potential for much improved lifestyles if we take more action now and opt for a green recovery from the massive shock our systems have suffered as a result of Covid-19.
Globe in cage image by Priyam Patel from Pixabay
Padlock image by Bob McEvoy from Pixabay
Park Lockdown image by Queven from Pixabay