The word “unprecedented” is beginning to feel a little overused, but the truth is that no-one alive today has experienced anything like this. At the time of writing, there have been more than 165,000 deaths worldwide, one-third of the global population is under lockdown, and the International Monetary Fund is predicting the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Far too many of those deaths could have been avoided had leaders followed scientific advice. Amidst all this, is it possible to find any grounds for optimism?
Despite the avalanche of dispiriting news — and there is plenty of it — there are signs that we are also witnessing unprecedented global dialogue, innovation and collaboration. Worldwide, everyone from citizens to scientists to industry are pooling their resources to fight the virus. We see it here at C40, where global cities have wasted no time in using well-established networks to share information, support and advice on tackling the emergency. Moreover, we are also beginning to see a shift in perception as to what can and can’t be achieved when we are faced with a crisis of this scale. This pandemic is showing what we are capable of when faced with an emergency that threatens us all.
2020 will certainly go down as the year that our ideas of what is possible shifted dramatically. Where increasing government spending to improve public services that benefit everyone was previously unthinkable, suddenly governments around the world are finding billions of dollars. Support for the health service, in particular, is at a palpable all-time high.
Across the world, we’ve been able to find beds for the homeless, when previously the tragedy of people living on the streets, even in the wealthiest societies, was accepted as impossible to resolve.
After years of being told it was unrealistic to expect people to fly and drive less, many businesses and government services have shifted to home-working and videoconferencing almost overnight, contributing to a massive reduction in road traffic and a 70% drop in flying worldwide. In my home city of London, where aggressive policy by Mayor Sadiq Khan had already reduced nitrogen dioxide levels by 35%, during lockdown pollution across the whole of London has fallen by a further 27%. And as we get closer to urban air that is fit to breathe, evidence is mounting of how air pollution may be a key contributor to Covid-19 deaths.
This global catastrophe has put the human capacity for compassion, adaptability and resilience on full display: among the inspiring sights to come out of this terrible situation are examples of radical innovation and cooperation, often community led, that are both saving and improving lives.
In diverse and geographically distant locations, citizens have been organising to support each other and protect the most vulnerable, with community groups in many places appearing almost overnight. In cities, municipalities are closing roads to increase the space for residents to exercise safely. Bogota, Milan, Mexico City, and Berlin have expanded cycle lanes to make it easier for people to move around the city while physically distancing. Recognising the importance of connectivity during quarantine, San Francisco has installed Wi-Fi “SuperSpots” to facilitate distance learning.
If we can learn anything from the response to Covid-19, it is that we can respond to shared emergencies cooperatively, and that we can do it fast, without complex structures and bureaucracy. Rapid action is possible from citizens, industry, academia and government at all levels. We also now know that individuals are willing to make personal sacrifices when the link between actions and consequences are understood. All of this says to me that, if we can get the messaging right, we are more than capable of doing the same for the climate emergency.
Climate and ecological breakdown is also a crisis that needs an urgent and radical response, but unlike the measures put in place to combat Covid-19, the change will need to be sustainable. We’ve seen how the pandemic response has led to clear skies and dramatic reductions in CO2 emissions, but as Professor Katherine Hayhoe rightly observed: “The pandemic isn’t likely to reduce carbon emissions long-term because [emissions] are currently being reduced by human behaviour changes that are not sustainable. But (and here’s the hopeful part), if the emissions reductions had been achieved through true climate solutions, then the impact on climate would have been enormous.”
Amidst the tragic loss of life, the anxiety, and the economic hardships, we’ve experienced a tiny glimpse of a different future. It’s become much clearer that we do have a choice: we don’t have to breathe dirty air, we can work and keep in touch with one another without burning fossil fuels, and we could find other uses for our public space than car traffic. Hardly surprising that a recent survey in the UK found that only 9% of people want to return to life as normal after the outbreak.
So, this radically altered way of living offers an opportunity to reflect: to what extent do we want to return to business as usual? Will we be in a hurry to re-open those pedestrianised roads to the most polluting vehicles? Will those expanded cycle lanes created for the benefit of health workers, and networks of support and connection that have sustained the most vulnerable members of our communities evaporate as quickly as they have appeared? Or will this be the turning point after which we decide we’ve had enough of dirty air, congested streets and the destruction of the life support systems on which we all depend?
To answer these questions, we must look forward to a better world, rooted in a determination to preserve what we have learnt and gained, while recognising the terrible loss that the pandemic has wrought on so many lives. Radical change, if realised in a way that improves people’s lives — through better air quality, regenerative economies, housing the homeless, universal basic incomes, and many other ways — will also deliver a sustainable planet on which future generations can thrive.
The Covid-19 crisis is far from over; we are likely to be focused on fighting the pandemic for the rest of 2020 at least. But it is not too early to start envisioning the future we want once the health emergency subsides. Globally, many voices are beginning to call for climate action to be entrenched in recovery packages. The city of Milan has announced ambitious plans to shift road space from cars to pedestrians and cyclists as part of reimagining the city after the outbreak. Likewise, C40 mayors representing cities from eight regions of the globe have formed a task-force to plan for a recovery that delivers the goals of social equity and planetary sustainability.
I look forward to seeing what we can achieve together.
The views expressed in this opinion are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy
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