If we’re looking for positives to distract us from the coronavirus pandemic, then we need look no further than the improvement to air quality and the environment in general as a result of the lockdown across much of the world. And whilst these changes are very welcome, they serve as both an example and a warning. David Attenborough spoke recently about his fears that the pandemic would detract from efforts to combat climate change. This year’s vital COP26 conference in Glasgow has inevitably been postponed until 2021, because of social distancing rules.
But what can the lockdown teach us about the environment?
When we stay at home, the environment dramatically improves
In the UK alone, traffic numbers have fallen to 1955 levels. In Oxford Street, pollution (measured according to the amount of Nitrogen Dioxide in the air) has fallen by a massive 47%. As an indication of just how dramatic a change that is, have a look at my post about London’s environmental record from last year. The drop in fuel consumption has brought the price of petrol down; my local ASDA is advertising at just £1.02 per litre. The collapse of global demand has turned the price of US crude oil negative for the first time on record. Oil producers have run out of storage space and are currently storing 160m barrels of surplus oil at sea in supergiant oil tankers.
In the UK, traffic numbers have fallen to 1955 levels during the pandemic. In Oxford Street, pollution has fallen by a massive 47%.
Wildlife quickly fills the void in our town centres
Meanwhile with the roads safely clear of traffic, there have been numerous sightings of animals venturing into empty town centres! Specifically, there are reports of goats wandering the empty streets of Llandudno, as well as sheep visiting a closed McDonald’s Drive Thru! Around the world, similar scenes have been witnessed – including ducks, cows, monkeys, deer and kangaroos braving towns and cities.
And yet, even before the lockdown, there were sightings of unfamiliar animals. In January and February, several bears were sighted in Russia, Finland and Canada. Not unusual locations, but certainly very unusual timings. Typically, bears hibernate for the entire winter until mid-spring, before venturing out enjoy the food that summer has to offer. Yet Europe has just experienced its hottest ever winter, with average temperatures 1.4ºC higher than the previous high in 2015/16. February 2020 just passed was the second hottest February of all time globally, missing the record by 0.1ºC. Warmer temperatures have brought these bears our of hibernation several months too early.
What are the short-term consequences of these bear sightings?
Firstly, here’s the good news. Unless you live in the US, Canada, Finland or Russia, you shouldn’t expect a visit from a hungry bear anytime soon. If you do live in these areas, then I wish you the best of luck – especially if they follow the example set by the Welsh goats and sheep!
What is the long-term impact of the bear sightings?
Now the bad news: the serious issue lies here. Climate change is a man-made issue. Yet it’s an increasingly devastating reality that wild animals are bearing the brunt of its consequences. Climate change affects species around the world. So wildlife is very much the canary in the coal mine for the planet as a whole.
Climate change hasn’t gone away
Before the onset of the global pandemic, climate change was the hot topic. And yet the changes made by governments across the world in response have been slow and piecemeal. The existing lack of urgency now threatens to become paralysis, with the onset of coronavirus. All time and effort will be consumed by managing both the pandemic crisis itself and the inevitable ensuing economic fallout. Whilst we enjoy the current improved air quality, it’s vital that complacency doesn’t set in. Rising temperatures, sea levels and extreme weather will continue to impact everything from human health to the tourism industry. As the world economy comes back online, the demand for energy will once again rise. Without a change in direction, power generation will eventually become ever more unreliable and water supply increasingly under stress.
According Morgan Stanley, climate disasters alone have cost North America $415 Billion since 2016. With an increase in the frequency and severity of natural disasters this figure is only going in one direction.
Pressure to stimulate economic growth risks relegating environmental concerns
With unprecedented pressure on government to stimulate economic growth, there is a real danger that efforts to combat climate change will be relegated to a secondary concern once again. David Attenborough recently declared that the world is sick and there is no more time to put off making changes. He implored governments not to take their eye off the ball, despite the pandemic. We simply cannot afford to say, ‘Well, it’s happening in the rest of the world and not to me.’ The reality is that it’s happening to all of us. If we put off until tomorrow what we can start today, then the future will be bleak.
When the lockdown is lifted the government will face unprecedented pressure to stimulate economic growth, and there is a real danger that efforts to combat climate change will be relegated to a secondary concern once again.
The lesson: radical lifestyle change causes rapid environmental improvement
Ultimately. what’s interesting is that the pandemic lockdown – whilst an awful price to pay – has precipitated the dramatic environmental results that Attenborough and others have been calling for. It has demonstrated beyond doubt that a radical change to our lifestyle does produce rapid, demonstrable and positive environmental change. The lesson is there for us to learn.
The lockdown – whilst an awful price to pay – has precipitated dramatic environmental results. It has demonstrated beyond doubt that a radical change to our lifestyle does produce rapid, demonstrable and positive environmental change.
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