Climate change

The government’s coronavirus response proves we can tackle the climate crisis

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By using the government’s coronavirus response as a blueprint for tackling the climate crisis the government can instil social and economic change that will cement Britain as a global leader in tackling climate change.

Both the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis strike similarities. They represent a worldwide catastrophe which requires global coordination, both disproportionately impact vulnerable people, and a successful response requires a combination of collective action, behavioural change and government policy.

While the global health impact of coronavirus is obvious, the threat posed by climate change is often overlooked. The World Health Organisation (WHO) predicts that climate change will cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 from malnutrition, disease and heat stress. 

Additionally, research links poor air quality to heart disease, strokes, lung cancer, asthma, chronic pulmonary diseases and the development of age-related macular degeneration disease, a leading cause of vision problems. It’s difficult to refute the threat that climate change poses to human life and it urgently needs to be addressed. 

The community response to coronavirus is admirable and something climate groups have attempted to build in local communities. In the face of adversity, local communities have come together to assist vulnerable people and over 750,000 people have signed up to the NHS Responders Taskforce. 

We have also seen widespread fundraising efforts, including Captain Tom Moore’s 100 laps which has raised £32 million for the NHS and an army of mutual aid groups, volunteers, businesses and organisations who have shifted their focus to providing food parcels and support for vulnerable individuals.

Moreover, collective action has transformed people’s lives. Since the nationwide lockdown began in March, parents have been homeschooling, people leave the house only for essential purchases or exercise, and those working from home have shifted to a new environment, where business trips have been replaced with online conferencing tools.

Consequently, Europe has experienced reduced levels of air pollutants by nearly half and researchers say that 11,000 fewer people have died thanks to cleaner air. 

It’s predicted that the pollution-free period generated by coronavirus restrictions will result in 6,000 fewer new cases of asthma in children and nearly 2,000 avoided hospital visits. Although this is not a silver lining due to the ongoing human suffering caused by coronavirus, it does offer a glimpse into the benefits of a greener future. 

The unnecessary nature of some of our travel has been exposed and the government was quick to point this out. Business trips have been replaced by online conferences which will hopefully decrease the amount of unnecessary business flights post-lockdown. 

If we can perpetuate the eradication of unnecessary travel this will have an ongoing impact on climate change. Overnight, people’s behaviour has shifted as they adopt ways to ‘flatten the curve’. 

Collective action is integral to climate movements and if the public were mobilised on this scale to adopt more sustainable measures, personal carbon footprints would significantly decrease.

The community response has been admirable and is proof that the public can pull together during an emergency. The truth is, we are amid a climate emergency. 

When the pandemic subsides, the government and campaigners must attempt to coordinate community action on a similar scale as a proactive measure to prevent climate change becoming the public health crisis we are heading towards. 

This could involve facilitating ‘greener’ diets, holding local Councils to account over climate commitments, along with car-sharing and upcycling efforts. 

Additionally, temporary measures have been introduced to facilitate green travel. The ‘bikes for key workers’ scheme in Leicester provide free bikes to key workers to get to work with temporary cycle lanes built to facilitate their use. 

The redesigning of local communities needs to perpetuate after the pandemic but this is only the first step. The government must follow the rest of Europe and improve affordable public transport networks, invest in widening pavements and integrate public transport systems.

In Paris, cycleways are being built and subsidies are being offered to cyclists. Officials in Milan are building cycle lanes and widening pavements, and pedestrians in Belgium now have priority and can use the entirety of the streets in the city centre. Replicating these measures will have a lasting impact on public health in UK cities. 

This behavioural change has been supplemented by unprecedented government policy. Limits to personal freedoms, huge economic support for workers and the reorganisation of production are akin to wartime. 

The Chancellor’s furlough scheme now covers 7.5 million workers and although plans to incrementally ease lockdown measures have begun, individual liberty is still restricted. Society is unrecognisable and government policy highlights the level of support available in times of crisis. 

The government is now faced with a choice of whether to reassemble the dysfunctional polluting economy or to reinvest into sectors that will secure a safer future. 

The UK aviation industry is appealing for a government bailout and oil companies are on the verge of collapse. Coronavirus has wiped out the demand for fossil fuels and the International Energy Agency says that renewable electricity will be the only energy source resilient to the biggest energy shock in 70 years. 

The government can either let the market decide the fate of these companies or impose strict environmental commitments that will force actions to accompany the empty rhetoric of recent years. It’s an opportunity for economic renewal and putting clean energy at the heart of economic stimulus packages will ensure a green recovery and a shift towards a sustainable economy.

This is not to say the UK government’s response to the pandemic has been perfect and its competence is a topic beyond the means of this article. Instead, the government has an opportunity to facilitate social and economic change that would secure a safer and greener future. 

If the climate crisis is treated with a fraction of the urgency coronavirus is, Britain will lead the global effort to tackle climate change. A far cry from the 1970s ‘sick man of Europe’.

Ed Sawyer is a political campaign professional and part-time MSc student at the University of Bath. He also hosts a radio show which discusses contemporary climate and environmental news.

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