The coronavirus response embodies what we need to do to tackle the climate crisis, but government must seize the ‘opportunity’

Posted in: COVID-19, Energy and environmental policy, Evidence and policymaking, UK politics

Ed Sawyer is a political campaign professional, and an MSc Public Policy student at the University of Bath.

The coronavirus response provides a blueprint for tackling the climate crisis. The UK government can instil social and economic change that will cement Britain as a global leader in tackling climate change and preventing it from becoming a public health emergency.

Both the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis strike similarities. They represent a worldwide catastrophe which requires global coordination; both are a global health issue disproportionately impacting vulnerable people; and a successful response requires a combination of collective action, behavioural change and government policy. The response to coronavirus can therefore provide a blueprint for tackling the climate crisis.

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. In addition to this, 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 in older individuals. It is therefore difficult to refute the threat that climate change poses to human life. Consequently, the UK government must treat the climate crisis with similar urgency to the coronavirus.

The community response to the coronavirus crisis is admirable and something climate groups have attempted to forge with local climate campaigning. In the face of adversity, local communities have come together to assist vulnerable people by delivering care packages, and over 750,000 people have signed up to the NHS Responders Taskforce. We have also seen widespread fundraising efforts, including Colonel 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 most people’s lives and the community response has been admirable, proving that the public can pull together during an emergency. Following a nationwide lockdown in March, people’s behaviour shifted as they adopted ways to ‘flatten the curve’. Parents began to home-school their children; citizens left the house only for essential purchases or exercise; and those working from home shifted to a new environment, where business trips were replaced with online conferencing tools, potentially signalling a new future in which unnecessary business flights are significantly reduced.

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 is 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 emergency hospital visits due to asthma attacks. Although this should not be seen a silver lining due to ongoing human suffering caused by coronavirus, it does illustrate the impact of air pollutants on respiratory health and offers a glimpse into the benefits of a greener future.

When the pandemic subsides the government and campaigners must attempt to coordinate community action on a similar scale seen post-lockdown, as a proactive measure to prevent climate change becoming the public health emergency that its heading towards. This could involve facilitating ‘greener’ diets, holding local Councils to account over climate commitments, or simply car-sharing or upcycling efforts.

Some temporary measures have already been introduced to facilitate green travel. In the UK, the ‘bikes for key workers’ scheme in Leicester provides free bikes for key workers to get to work, with temporary cycle lanes built to facilitate their use. But 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, 650km of cycleways are being built and subsidies 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 streets in the city centre. Replicating these measures will have a lasting impact on public health in UK cities.

Behavioural change has of course been supplemented by unprecedented government policy, such as limits to personal freedoms, huge economic support for workers, and the reorganisation of production. The Chancellor’s job retention scheme now covers 7.5 million workers, the government has called on companies like Amazon and Burberry to provide personal protective equipment to healthcare workers, and although the easing of lockdown measures has begun, individual liberty is still restricted.

But with lockdown plans continuing to ease over the coming months, the UK government has an important decision to make. Is it time to return to ‘normal’, or time to reinvest into sectors that will secure a safer, more just future?

The UK aviation industry is appealing for a government bailout, despite not paying tax in the UK, 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 on the fate of these companies or impose strict environmental commitments that will force actions to accompany the empty rhetoric of recent years. It is an opportunity for economic renewal and by putting clean energy at the heart of economic stimulus packages, the government can ensure a green recovery and a shift towards a sustainable economy.

This is not to say the UK government’s response to the pandemic to-date has been perfect, and its belatedness and 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.

Government policy, behavioural change and community action are the three facets that will facilitate real and meaningful environmental change. If the climate crisis is treated with a fraction of the urgency coronavirus is, Britain will lead the global effort to tackle climate change.


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All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.

Posted in: COVID-19, Energy and environmental policy, Evidence and policymaking, UK politics


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