Why Covid-19 won’t save the environment – Labour Article

Why Covid-19 won’t save the environment – Labour Article

You’d be forgiven for thinking that coronavirus has done some good for the environment. This is because of the multitude of headlines broadcasting the ‘silver lining’ of lockdown. Anecdotes have warmed our hearts: the increased sightings of rare birds across the UK; dolphins returning to the canals of Venice (which, ironically, proved to be false); and the Himalayas being visible from India for the first time in 30 years due to reduced air pollution. From this, one cannot help but be hopeful that coronavirus will do the environment some good.

Globally, Covid-19’s beneficial impact on the environment has been reported in climate analysis. Global carbon emissions are estimated to have dropped by 17%. This is the greatest drop the world has ever experienced and six times greater than the impact of the 2008 financial crisis on the climate.

Carbon Brief, a UK based climate science site, revealed that Chinese energy use and emissions fell by 25% in just two weeks due to stringent lockdown. Their coal use fell by 40% and the proportion of days with “good quality air” increased by 11.4%. In the UK, a recent ICOS study revealed that London’s carbon emissions dropped 58% during lockdown.

                                                    (NASA image)

When hearing such statistics, one cannot help but agree with Dutch trends forecaster, Li Edelkoort’s assertion that Covid-19 is “an amazing grace for the planet”… right?

I’m afraid not.

The low emissions will not be long-lived. Climate scientists expect dramatic increases in emissions in the near future. In fact, despite a current emissions drop of 17%, the World Meteorological Organisation predicts that our annual carbon dioxide emissions will only drop by 6%. This is because the pandemic will not cause long-term behavioural changes.

For example, the transport sector, heavily hit by the pandemic, accounts for 23% of global carbon emissions. However, throughout lockdown reduced car journeys accounted for almost half of the decrease in global emissions. Therefore, these decreases were not a result of long-term and sustained efforts. As life returns to normal, so will these emission levels.

Similarly, lockdown revealed that nothing will stop our consumerist habits. Jeff Bezos is set to become the world’s first trillionaire after the demand for Amazon went through the roof. This highlights that society is unable to cut back on consuming even during a pandemic. In the US, online sales have grown by 76% in June.

Additionally, the shutting down of businesses caused serious amounts of waste. UK brands such as Primark, Asda and Matalan cancelled £2.4 billion worth of fashion orders according to the Bangladeshi and Garment Manufacturers Exporters Association (BGMEA). This forced over a million Bangladeshi garment workers to be sent home without pay or even a job. It also left behind mountains of clothing waste from orders placed, then cancelled.

Likewise, disposable PPE, whilst crucial, will significantly contribute to global waste in years to come. Maybe disposable masks will become the latest ‘eco villain’, the next plastic straw?

Historically, all major crises and events cause a global drop in emissions in the short term. However, times of recovery often mean the need to re-invigorate the economy supersede concerns for the environment. After the 2008 Financial Crash, carbon emissions shot up by 5% as a result of stimulus packages to encourage fossil fuel use. In fact, China started the “largest and most polluting economic stimulus programme in history” according to Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at Finland’s Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

Thus, it is clear that while Covid-19 has revealed many things about how our society operates, it has not opened our eyes to how we will solve the climate crisis. Lockdown made the world stop. To those fortunate enough to work from home, consider how little you ventured outside, how few people you saw, how restricted your life was. Think about all the sacrifices you made, your friends made, nations made. Supermarkets had shelves emptied, stock was unable to come in, orders were cancelled.

Our lives effectively ground to a halt and we only reduced global carbon emissions by 17%! Imagine the extent to which our lives need to change for emissions to be cut entirely, as per the government’s carbon net-zero target for 2050.

Sure, coronavirus has shown that we are able and willing to come together in the name of public safety. But it seems only possible when a palpable threat is imminent. Our inherent loss aversion means that we are incapable of prioritising long-term threats over short-term comforts. The climate emergency is an existing and cumulative threat. One that will not have a trigger event until it is too late.

We can all agree that coronavirus has changed the way we view the world and our lifestyles. Aptly put, economist Tim Harford notes, “The virus has taught us that our way of life is more vulnerable than we might hope. It has taught us the importance of making sacrifices now to prepare for predictable risks in the future.” We all recognise that a meeting can be done on a Zoom call rather than flying halfway across the world, that working from home is a possibility. Ask yourself, is that really enough reason to herald coronavirus as the saviour of the planet?

Written by Guest Labour Writer, Abi Smuts

Point of Information

We should not be too pessimistic about the effects of Covid-19 on the environment – a Liberal Response

I fully share Abi’s concern that the reduction in carbon emissions is only temporary. As lockdowns across the globe end, pollution and waste may increase temporarily. The statistics Abi has used show this. Looking at it on a surface level, the world should be worried – for now.

I argue we should be more optimistic about how we view environmental change in a post-Covid world. This is especially given the uniqueness and context of the pandemic.

Abi argues that Coronavirus has changed our world and lifestyles. Yet, the change isn’t just limited to our actions alone. I argue Covid-19 has fundamentally altered how we perceive the world around us. We have gone through a paradigm shift. Gone is the mindset of complacency that dominated the 2010s. We can no longer take for granted the inevitability of progress. This gives added weight to the calls for urgent environmental action after the pandemic. 

We should also remember the context of the pandemic. Not since World War Two has such an extensive restructuring of society been needed. In addition, a decade of intense, mass protests across the globe to actively tackle climate change has occurred. The time is ripe to restructure Britain along environmentally-friendly lines. Indeed, governing bodies across the world have already begun implementing ‘Green Deals’ to increase economic output sustainably (for example, take the EU). There is more cause for hope than for concern in my opinion.

Granted, the way this change manifests will be slow. Convenience is still prized above all else, which Abi demonstrates through Amazon’s success. However, a more environmentally-aware population is beginning to hold its government accountable for how it tackles climate change after the pandemic.

The longest-lasting impact of Coronavirus will be our changed mindsets. Our new-found urgency gives me hope that successful environmental change will follow a temporary growth in emissions.

Written by Junior Liberal Writer, Frank Allen

No incentive to change — a Conservative Response

I can’t help but agree with Abi here. Covid has merely been a short period of grace for the environment. A small gasp of air, before we go back to treading water, or, perhaps, drowning.

The main point of Abi’s that I would like to reiterate, is that the crisis will probably only exacerbate the problem in the long term. As lockdowns set in, economies plummeted. After prioritising the health of their populaces, leaders will now tend to the health of their economies. There will be redoubled efforts to stave off the worst economic effects of the crisis, undoubtedly leading to (at least) the very same level of emissions as before.

I cannot see, as Frank mentioned, any incentive for world leaders to restructure societies along greener lines. Their political survival rests on getting their crippled countries, back off their knees. Everything will be about money.

For as long as combustible fuels are our main source of kinetic energy, we will have this problem. The profit-motive of capitalism may have gotten us into this mess, but it may also help us get out of it.

The only solution that can aid the planet within the current system, is a viable eco-friendly fuel that could replace the combustibles. Current technology is very far from the scale that is needed. The profit-motive for the creation of such a technology is extreme, so there is very considerable attention & investment in this area.

The strength of this article has left me with little to add. The short-term economic impact will be centre-focus, not the environment. Those with the power to change the status quo, are also the ones that benefit from it. We will go on as we are, and kick the environmental can down the road.

Written by Senior Conservative Writer, Alexander Dennis

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Abi Smuts
Labour Senior Writer | Website

Hi, I’m Abi, a final year at Uni of Exeter studying International Relations and English. To me, it was only in A Levels that I realised how important politics was, when I was stuck in my male-only, extremely conservative Politics class having to constantly justify and defend my opinions to them.

Frank Allen
Liberal writer | Website

Politics was a completely taboo subject for me as a young boy. Having lived almost all my life in Brunei and Qatar – two very strict, theocratic autocracies – I was cautious to keep my opinions well-guarded. The smallest negative remark about either country’s governance, for example, would’ve meant deportation for my family and I. Any non-approved political activity, no matter how naïve, had to be kept a secret. It was best not to question at all.

Alexander Dennis
Political writer | Website

Hello, I’m Alexander Dennis, and I am going into my third undergraduate year at the University of Exeter. I study Politics & International Relations, with a possible year abroad hanging in the balance. My particular interest in politics really started in early 2016: yes, it was ‘Brexit’. I was at once intrigued, and confused, by something so critical. From that baptism, I have become somewhat addicted to political discussion, intrigued by issues ranging from drugs policy to taxation. So I followed my nose: I applied for a degree in the subject.

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