My reaction to last week’s news that British Airways may stop flying out of Gatwick and concentrate its London base at Heathrow, may not have been typical. My heart lifted a little. Could the scaling down of international air travel signal the beginning of a significant change in what we consider to be economic and political certainties?
Could we, at last, be willing to consider the possibility of moving from an economy based on environmental and human exploitation, to one that nourishes us all – people and planet? I know, I know, I’m a privileged hippy and it’s not my job on the line. But please bear with me. We’ll come back to jobs and livelihoods soon.
Hasn’t the fresher air tasted better? If you live on a flight-path, hasn’t the peace in the skies been beautiful? Have you loved hearing the birds sing? If you suffer from asthma, haven’t you been breathing a little easier? Here in London, toxic emissions at major roads and junctions has fallen by almost 50%.
For how many years have Green campaigners have been calling ‘Fire’, only for the response to be, “there is no alternative”; change isn’t possible; our economy is dependent on the burning of fossil fuels; perpetual economic growth is the only way to reduce human suffering?
I’m old enough to remember a surge of environmentalism in the early ’90s, when the ending of the Cold War seemed to signal the start of new possibilities of global co-operation that through the Rio Declaration might protect the planet from destruction. But the alarm bell was being rung before that.
As it turned out, all these voices were drowned out over the next 30 years as we fell for a promise that happiness was to be found in cheap flights, cheap food, lots of cars and endless supplies of disposable consumer goods. Never mind if the seas clogged up with plastic, the coral and the rainforests died and the planet kept warming.
Until now. In the face of Coronavirus, we have discovered that we can do without throw-away fashion, take-away meals, and all the rest; we have agreed this is a circumstance in which human suffering can only be prevented by sacrificing economic growth.
I’m not for a second suggesting that this pandemic is a good thing. The deaths, the isolation, the loss of livelihoods and fear and insecurity should NOT be the price we pay for addressing the flaws in our economic system.
But I think it is significant that in our response to the pandemic, we have jettisoned some assumptions that we previously agreed were unquestionable. It turns out we can fly much less, drive much less, commute much less than we thought – and still survive.
More than that, we have discovered that we humans are not entirely short-sighted and selfish; we are, in certain circumstances, willing to put our individual wants to one side for the common good. We have rediscovered that humanity can act together to prevent its own destruction.
If we, as society, are able co-operate in ways that go against our immediate individual needs in order to flatten a curve of Coronavirus infection, perhaps we should do it in order to flatten another curve, the one that signals another emergency threatening to overwhelm us: global warming.
The drop in carbon emissions is heading for a record-breaking 5-5%-5.7% this year, but that won’t be anywhere near enough to halt climate change. Carbon dioxide is so long-lived in the atmosphere that a small decrease in emissions will not register against the overwhelming increase since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Some local and national governments have recognised that this sudden and extraordinary pause to ‘business as usual’ offers an opportunity to address environmental concerns.
Milan has announced an ambitious scheme to reduce car use after Lockdown. Governments from New Zealand to Scotland have made funding available for temporary cycle lanes and walkways amid the pandemic. In Brussels, the city centre has become a priority zone for cyclists and pedestrians. Temporary street closures to cars have taken place in Brighton, Bogotá, Cologne, Vancouver and Sydney as well as multiple US cities including Boston, Denver and Oakland. In England, restrictions have been lifted to enable councils to more easily close streets to cars.
Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres, who was one of the architects of the Paris Accord on climate change, has gone even further. Interviewed on C4 News recently, she described the next 3-24 months as a window of opportunity for governments making decisions on how to kickstart economies, to do so in ways that decarbonise the world and build “a thriving economy that will protect the wellbeing of everyone”.
“Because these crises have collided, we have the responsibility to converge the solutions,” she said. If not, “we will be jumping out of the frying pan into a raging fire. We cannot rebuild business as usual – it doesn’t work for humanity or the ecosystems that sustain us.”
In other words, the new jobs and livelihoods we create coming out of Coronavirus could be sustainable ones, for example in renewable energy, carbon capture, home-working technology, sustainable transport and infrastructure.
It is clear to me that all this suffering will not make the planet any cooler. But it might be presenting us a moment of pause in which to check what our priorities really are.
Read more on this subject
The Covid-19 crisis creates a chance to reset economies on a sustainable footing
: New Zealand climate minister says governments must not return to the way things were.
How has Coronavirus helped the environment?: BBC Futures investigation
I am a mad scientist: Death, poverty, loneliness — are ineffective blueprints for climate solutions, writes Kate Marvel a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University
Improvement in natural conditions should not come at the expense of human lives – Christiana Figueres: C4 News interview with the Costa Rican diplomat who was an architect of the landmark Paris climate accords