Since the imposition of a national lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus, many Londoners are hearing birdsong from their homes for the first time. With the constant background hum of traffic all but silenced, the daily avian chorus is audible – an unexpected but undeniably lovely impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s not only Londoners who are experiencing a change in their environment – a flourishing, even, of the natural world while humans are forced indoors. In Venice, the canals are running clear for the first time in years without the coming and going of boats. Residents in the northern Indian state of Punjab were shocked at the sight of the Himalayas mountain range, now visible without the smog of pollution hanging in the air.

Dramatic reductions in transport use, industrial activity and energy demand – largely the result of lockdown measure which now cover about 2.5 billion people globally – have caused a substantial drop in carbon emissions. Estimates suggest EU daily emissions have been cut by 58 per cent. Between early February and mid-March, China’s emissions output fell 18 percentage points.

But while the natural world is in many ways thriving, political will to address human-induced environmental damage may be severely lacking after the end of the coronavirus pandemic.

As restrictions on everyday activities begin to be lifted in parts of Europe, and many Americans clamour to restart the economy, political priorities will most likely be rebuilding economies decimated by the virus. How states navigate this process could be formative for the future of the planet.

New York City’s Queens Boulevard in lockdown. Credit: Jim Griffin

A bleak prognosis

Recent estimates by the Bank of England painted a grim picture for the UK’s economic health post-pandemic, suggesting the British economy was headed for its worst crash in more than 300 years. Long before COVID-19 was a household name, analysis found that the world was not on track to meet ‘carbon budgets’ set at the Paris climate summit in 2016.

While significant regional variations exist, with the EU on set to deliver on its targets, some of the hardest-hit nations will be in dire need of an economic boost, potentially derailing this relative progress.

Climate change negotiations have already been put on hold, with UN climate conference COP26, due to take place in Glasgow this November, postponed until 2021. School Strike for Climate, the now global movement started by Swedish schoolgirl-cum-climate-activist Greta Thunberg, has ground to a halt after the widespread prohibition of mass gatherings.

Taking eco online

Nonetheless, many activists are refusing to give up the fight for climate justice. Rather than meeting on the streets, young protesters have taken to ‘digital striking’ via Zoom. The strikers have also been posting photos of themselves online, holding a placard accompanied by #DigitalStrike or #ClimateStrikeOnline.

In Bristol, climate activism group Extinction Rebellion have also moved online, holding weekly meetings and discussing the fight against climate change in a new, post-pandemic world. Some activists say that the pandemic has forced them to adopt a more global approach – an absolute necessity if global warming is to be curbed.

London’s Covent Garden in lockdown

What next?

Meanwhile, the UN have urged leaders to ‘build back better’ after the coronavirus is brought under control; Secretary-General António Guterres has since stressed that governments ought not to use taxpayer money to bail out polluting industries. “Where taxpayers’ money is used to rescue businesses, it must be creating green jobs and sustainable and inclusive growth,” he said.

In the UK, government advisers have warned ministers against sending us into yet another crisis. A recent Ipsos MORI poll suggested that public opinion was on their side: 66% of Britons surveyed believe that long-term climate change is as serious as COVID-19.

But whether or not to prioritise the climate during our post-COVID economic recovery is likely to be a more polarising issue. Asked whether the government should take actions which could be environmentally harmful in order to help the economy recover, Brits were split 46 per cent to 43 per cent, with just slightly more valuing economic recovery at the potential expense of the environment. Globally, nearly two thirds agreed the climate should be prioritised.

Divisions over how to repair the economic damage of coronavirus are also playing out on the international political stage. In some cases, these debates could intensify existing political rifts. Will the UK join European leaders’ hope for a ‘green recovery’, or follow Donald Trump’s $25 billion commitment to bail out struggling airline companies?

Glasgow in lockdown. Credit: Daniel Naczk

Competing pressures

Many heads of state will be under pressure to address a dramatic rise in unemployment, which presents a challenge to António Guterres’ warning against saving carbon-intensive industries. In 2018 UK aviation accounted for an estimated 230,000 jobs, many of which are already at risk following a 90 per cent drop in flights from UK airports.

Nationwide, unemployment is expected to double as GDP shrinks. Policymakers, including Boris Johnson, could face severe backlash if they are seen to fail at the careful juggling act of economy and environment.

Reducing environmental damage may be made easier by policies aimed at creating a ‘new normal’. Already in New Zealand, Canada, Germany and the US, road closures have been implemented to encourage commuters to walk or cycle. Improved provision for working from home will also reduce emissions from transport. The UK government are expected to soon reveal a £250-million spending plan to invest in the country’s cycle lanes.

The environment is clearly on the agenda for some: Conservative MP Ruth Edwards asked at the most recent PMQs about investment in green infrastructure. Whether the same concern will shift to the front benches will become apparent over the coming months.

COVID’s next victim?

Ultimately, any downward trends in greenhouse gases emissions are likely to be short-lived if governments do not deliberately and effectively factor in climate change to their post-COVID recovery plans. But even the strongest economies may struggle to cough up the cash necessary to avoid tumbling head-long into climate disaster. And in their attempts to secure quick fixes while keeping the beleaguered electorate on side, the environment may simply slip down the list of priorities.

After the 2008 crash, fiscal stimulus packages enabled a rapid uptick in global carbon emissions which more than offset the initial dip. (Although Europe’s use of fossil fuels never returned to pre-crisis levels.)

Many policymakers are looking to China for a vision of life as lockdown restrictions begin to ease. But environmental groups will be hoping the Chinese, who seem to be turning to coal as their route out of a COVID-induced financial quagmire, will not set the global trend with their support of heavily polluting industries.

Having caused immeasurable damage to our health, economies and daily lives, the virus could represent an opportunity for the environment – or turn it into yet another victim.

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