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  • Writer's pictureHersh Thaker

Creativity in Crisis Publication: A false sense of hope on the climate crises?

Is it realistic to expect the sustainability agenda to be prioritised in the post- COVID recovery? (This article was published in "Creativity in Crisis - Micro Stories From The Macro Pandemic". All proceeds from this publication was donated to the National Emergencies Trust). You can purchase the full book here.

It’s 6pm on the evening after the 23rd March UK lockdown, and I’m cycling down a country lane just off a busy A46 dual carriageway in Leicester. The roads are empty and at points on my ride, it feels like I’m the only person on them. Usually, the roads are buzzing with rush hour traffic, so it was a nice change. I did feel an uncomfortable sense of peace — uncomfortable because I know this is only short-term and soon these roads will be awash with vehicles again. With feel-good stories circulating on social media and media outlets on how the lockdown has been good for the climate, there is a similar risk of being lured into a false pretence on how the current crises will impact climate change. In reality, like the inevitable return of the rush hour traffic we potentially face an even bigger challenge with the climate crises post COVID.

The short-term outlook is indeed very positive. With almost a third of the global population in lockdown, current analysis suggests we will see a 5.5% reduction in global C02 emissions in 2020, in comparison to 2019. This would represent the largest annual fall compared to any previous wars or economic crises[1]. During the peak of the China lockdown, CO2 emissions fell by 25%[2]; in major European cities, we’ve seen falls between 30-60%[3] in Nitrogen Oxide (NO2) and Particulate Matter, both largely created by vehicle fuel emissions, and lead to respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Closer to home, we’ve also seen 30-50% falls in NO2 levels in London, Birmingham, Bristol, and Cardiff[4]. Although these data points are reassuring, they are merely anomalies in an otherwise grim reality on our collective failure to get a grip of the climate crises.

The world has not been on track to meet the Paris Agreement target to keep average global temperatures “well below 2 degrees”[5] and to pursue efforts to limit the rise to 1.5 degrees. Depressingly, the current predicted 5.5% fall in 2020 (if maintained) still does not bring us down to the 1.5-degree limit. Global emissions would need to fall by some 7.6%[6] every year this decade in order to limit warming to less than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures; this is the reality of the challenge we face. The question now, is that given the magnitude of the current crisis and the long shadow it will cast, can the world really afford to prioritise the sustainability agenda at this time? I’m sceptical.

Taking air pollution as a use case, there have been notable instances of easing the standards. Trump has already announced the reduction of fuel efficiency standards for new cars[7], which is expected to worsen air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. China has also announced that it would temporarily suspend some environmental standards for small businesses to accelerate their economic recovery[8]. As well as this, in UK cities, several of the clean air zones roll-out plans have already been postponed. As temporary as some of the measures may be, they serve as an indication that economic recovery will not be compromised for environmental protection.

In a world potentially facing low oil prices for the foreseeable future, and falling car sales, we could see electric vehicle (EV) production being pushed back and de-prioritised by car manufacturers in order to survive and ease the pressures of cash flow; this would be a further dent in the reduction of air pollution. With Ford expecting to report Q1 2020 loses of $2billion[1], there is already a sense amongst investors that companies like Tesla will gain a competition advantage for EV’s, in the backdrop of immense disruption faced by their traditional competition[2]. Whilst this might be good for Tesla, it certainly isn’t good for tackling the climate crisis. I believe that, left to its own devices’ companies, will not prioritise a sustainability agenda when there is real or perceived risk to its bottom line.

There has been a move away from government regulations since the 1980’s, with the view that markets know best, and can organise more efficiently than governments can. Whilst it’s true that the market dynamics are vital, COVID-19 has shown that they are no substitute for the government’s role in organising society against a crisis and maintaining everyone’s best interests. The quote by Churchill, “Never waste a good crisis,” has never felt so apt. Whilst we’ve all had to rethink how we fundamentally live our lives, there is also an opportunity to intervene and steer people’s behaviour into low carbon consumption to maintain lasting reductions in carbon emissions. I’d like to see even more regulation and control, as well as the tightening of environmental standards in a statement from the government of the central role that it must continue to play in our lives as we work past the COVID crisis, but continue to live with the climate crisis.

COVID-19 was not a “black swan” event in that experts had warned of the dangers of a global pandemic and of how unprepared we were. Similarly, the climate crisis that we are already seeing play out, with extreme weather patterns and catastrophes like the recent bushfires, are not “black swan” events either — they are becoming more frequent and predictable. Climate change may not threaten our short-term survival, but it does indeed threaten our long-term existence. Unless there is intervention and action at the scale we are living through now, we risk sleep-walking past the point of no return on climate change.


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