‘How do we build from the current corona crisis towards a more sustainable future?’

Thank you Sustainability First for inviting me to address this thought provoking question. Here is my attempt at a response. Readers what are your thoughts?

Recent data published by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) has shown that carbon dioxide concentrations are the highest they have been since measurements began in 1958. During the week commencing 3rd May 2020, carbon dioxide levels reached 416.83 ppm, higher than the same week the previous year (2019, 414.11 ppm)[1]. Despite the current corona crisis causing a global shift in human behaviour, most notably air traffic halving in mid-March,[2] greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing. If we are to build towards a sustainable future – one where our planet can support life for generations to come, global greenhouse gas emissions must be drastically reduced. Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, trap solar energy close to the earth’s surface resulting in global warming, causing a plethora of problems for people and the planet.[3] Both the corona crisis and the climate change crisis are global anthropogenic issues concerning all humans. Consequently, lessons can be taken from the corona crisis to tackle climate change. This essay will argue that to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build from the current corona crisis towards a more sustainable future, we must decarbonise energy supplies (reduce the intensity of carbon emissions per unit of energy[4]) and limit consumption in line with the latest scientific findings.

During the corona crisis, the WHO (World Health Organisation) advised countries to “prioritize active, exhaustive case finding and immediate testing and isolation, painstaking contact tracing and rigorous quarantine of close contacts.”[5] This was adopted in Singapore, Vietnam, and South Korea, who vigorously traced coronavirus cases. Governments who followed scientific guidance set out by WHO managed to contain the number of infected citizens in their respective countries.[6] Putting science at the forefront of governmental actions resulted in a sustainable future – one where more citizens survived and businesses could continue. While, in the short-term investment was required and the benefits were less obvious (citizens didn’t necessarily want to isolate), in the long term the countries advanced and had overall lower death rates. We can build from this lesson by strictly following scientific guidance in tackling the climate crisis and looking beyond the short term. While initial expenditure and behaviour changes will be required to combat climate change, it will ensure a prosperous long-term future where more people will survive. The financial cost that could be imposed due to detrimental climate change is estimated to be over $1.5 trillion,[7] far higher than the initial investments needed to avoid a climate change crisis. While science can offer conflicting opinions, there is a general consensus that can be followed, particularly when using global, well established findings. Consequently, if we are to build on lessons learnt from the current corona crisis we must invest immediately in a sustainable future. This should be done by following well-researched and peer-reviewed science.

Scientific findings outlined in the most recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report state that we need to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels and we have just 11 years left to do this before changes are irreversible.[8] If we were to reach this point of no return, commonly referred to as the tipping point, the effect on humans and the planet would be catastrophic. To ensure a sustainable future this must be avoided at all costs. Transformation of our energy supply has been said to be one of the best ways to limit warming below the 1.5 degree threshold.[9] According to The International Renewable Energy Agency, renewables should generate 57% of our energy globally by the end of the decade to ensure ‘a pathway to climate safety.’ Currently renewables account for only 26% of our global energy supply.[10] It is evident, we need to focus on sourcing more of our global energy sustainably. Relying on fossil fuels for energy is harmful. Firstly, they release greenhouse gases contributing to global warming. Secondly, fossil fuels are a finite resource. They will inevitably deplete over time. In this way, reliance on traditional, carbon intense, fossil fuels won’t ensure a sustainable future, one where we can thrive, prosper and live safely for generations to come. In other words, fossil fuels harm our planet and don’t provide long term energy security. Consequently, learning from the corona crisis it is evident that to build a sustainable future, by avoiding a climate crisis, we must listen to the latest science, which is advising us to decarbonise global energy supplies.

Decarbonising global energy supplies requires meticulous strategising. By using a methodology similar to that employed during the current corona crisis we can strive towards attaining low carbon energy and combating climate change. At present, governments and scientists are studying historical virus containment strategies to understand what has worked well and what hasn’t in the past. For example, analysing actions taken during the SARS crisis, it is clear that to fight the virus rigorous personal hygiene was required. Following this research, we have been able to launch appropriate public advice campaigns for the coronavirus. In addition, a lesson learnt from the SARS epidemic was to reduce avoidable hospitalisation.[11] Therefore, resources have been used to encourage citizens to stay at home when ill. In a similar way, when planning to decarbonise our energy supplies and build towards a sustainable future, we must look at past strategies used to deviate away from fossil fuels, to see what worked well and can be replicated. Previously, success in transitioning to an energy system with a lower environmental impact involved enforcing stringent governmental legislation. For example, The EU’s large combustion plants directive, came into force in 2001. It meant that power plants had strict regulations to abide by. This resulted in many closing down and energy transitioning away from coal.[12] Learning from this previous accomplishment, it’s clear that ‘careful planning and policy making are required’ [13] to decarbonise our energy supply. An area of focus should be heating which accounts for half of global energy use, this in turn makes up ‘40% of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.’[14] Policies must be implemented encouraging a deviation from natural gas used for heating. So we can see that the employment of successful past measures can help in combating present issues. We must therefore introduce strict policy to decarbonise our energy system, something that we know to be effective. This will reduce global greenhouse gasses considerably and result in a sustainable future.  

However, introducing new policy is convoluted. The lack of current policy regarding decarbonisation of the heating sector in the UK, is partly due to uncertainty surrounding new technologies and ambiguity regarding implementation (particularly with reference to retrofitting old houses).[15] The current corona crisis has also brought about countless uncertainties. The nature of the virus and technologies required to defeat it are largely unknown. To reduce these uncertainties during the corona crisis we have invested monetary funds in research and development. By allocating a sufficient budget to the crisis, we have been able to work on developing vaccines and antibody tests. The same fiscal support is required to ensure a sustainable future by transitioning to low carbon energy. In 2017 the UK government set a target of investing 2.4% of GDP in research and development by 2027. At present only 1.69% of GDP is invested in this.[16] The remaining budget needs to be invested in addressing uncertainties in new green technology, such as zero carbon energy generation (particularly wind and solar), the storage of energy and modernising the grid.[17] Work completed in these areas needs to be communicated appropriately to policy writers, manufacturers and consumers. This will help in overcoming market failures and remedy the lack of information. It will enable transparency for consumers, so they know that their energy tariff is sustainable, and the price is fair.

Furthermore, funding is required to overcome barriers on a household level, such as the issue regarding initial investment of retrofitting homes and addressing ownership issues. If a household is paying rent to live in their accommodation they may have no incentive to invest in retrofitting their home to low carbon efficiency as they will not reap the financial benefits. This issue needs to be addressed. One way of addressing these market failures is providing subsidies. This could be to landlords or individuals to introduce new green technology in their homes or it could be for manufacturers and engineers working on developing low carbon technology.  Some steps in the right direction have been seen. For example, earlier this year the UK government lifted a block on subsidies for wind farm projects[18]. This has enabled the development of wind farms in the UK. More energy generation from wind farms will mean the price of renewable energy will decrease and will outcompete traditional fossil fuels such as gas. Consequently, renewable energy subsidies are needed to increase the viability of renewable energy. To build towards a sustainable future, where we limit global greenhouse gas emissions, there must be monetary investment in low carbon energy. In the same way as investment has been ploughed into research and development during the corona crisis, it is imperative that we do exactly the same if we’re going to have any chance of tackling the climate crisis. This will help in reducing uncertainties surrounding decarbonisation and help in formulating appropriate governmental policies.

However, it must be noted that simply throwing money at tackling the climate crisis is not enough. There are other considerations to take into account, such as the available pool of scientists and engineers to tackle the issue. A deficiency in expertise will undoubtedly limit progress.[19] We have seen during the Corona crisis a lack of health care professionals. This has resulted in non-urgent surgery being placed on hold for up to three months. [20] We need to learn from this lesson when approaching limiting greenhouse gas emissions by ensuring we invest in education and encourage young people to study engineering and work in the low carbon energy sector. This needs to be made appealing and can’t detract from other engineering work. We need a balanced workforce that will be equipped to help work towards a sustainable future.  

In addition to decarbonising energy through implementing legislation; investing in new technology; and ensuring there is a suitable work force, we need to limit overall energy consumption. This is key in ensuring a sustainable future. To limit consumption, clear goals and targets must be set in line with scientific guidance. During this corona crisis, regulations have been set in accordance with science. For example, lock down in London was eased when the R value (rate of infection) reduced to less than 1. We need to build from this by setting restrictions on businesses in line with consumption reduction targets.  The Science Based Targets Initiative[21] provides tools and resources for businesses to set environmental goals in line with staying below the 1.5C threshold. This is currently voluntary but should be made compulsory. In addition, further legislation should be introduced inviting businesses to calculate their carbon footprints and reduce them. Streamlined Energy Reporting is the current UK legislation in place, and requires businesses with over 250 employees or a turnover greater than £36 million to report on their scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions (this includes gas and electricity consumption).[22] This is a positive start. Monitoring and measuring will enable companies to benchmark against others in their industry.  However, it is paramount that businesses don’t stop here. They must work collaboratively to reduce consumption and in turn limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Part of striving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will require systemic behaviour change. During this current corona crisis, restrictions have been placed on us. We have had to weigh up restrictions on human rights and public health. [23] Society has adapted to societal changes to protect lives. A recent Guardian article stated that, “The pandemic has shown people will change their behaviour if it’s for the health of their families.”[24] Building on this to tackle the climate change crisis, we need better public engagement and education outlining the importance of changing the way we live our lives. If people understand the reasons behind us needing to consume less energy, they will be more likely to adopt changes. Pukka teas calculated their carbon footprint from ‘crop to cup,’ looking at growing coffee crops, manufacturing beans, packaging coffee, distributing it and the energy consumption in preparing coffee. They found that 49% of the entire carbon footprint was from customers boiling the kettle and using milk to prepare their drinks.[25] Pukka Teas have partnered with DoNation[26] to work on customer behaviour change, encouraging consumers to put less water in the kettle. However, this alone is not enough. As well as a reduction in energy consumption we need systemic change in our national grid sourcing low carbon energy. Exciting research into low carbon energy sources is being conducted. For example, The UK Atomic Energy Authority is helping to make fusion energy a reality. This technology aims to extract energy by using the same nuclear fusion reactions taking place in the sun. This would create an abundance of clean energy from minute amounts of fuel. ‘One kilogram of fusion fuel could provide the same amount of energy as 10 million kilograms of fossil fuel’[27]. However, this technology won’t be ready within 11 years, which is the time frame we have before climate change is irreversible, so we can’t rely on fusion energy alone. However, fusion energy provides a potential long term solution for creating a sustainable future.

Finally, we can also learn that effective and single-minded communication has an important part to play. The government’s official ‘Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives’ message has proved to be remarkably effective. Concise messaging has resulted in shielding the NHS and has brought the number of admissions and fatalities down significantly. Similar communications will have to be employed if we are going to achieve systemic behaviour change.

In conclusion, working towards a sustainable future is twofold. Firstly, it requires the sourcing of sustainable energy, i.e. decarbonisation. And secondly, it requires a reduction in the consumption of energy. To get there, the lessons we are learning from COVID19 are profound. We must; follow scientific guidance, analyse previous strategies, invest in research and development, ensure we have a well-equipped workforce, set clear goals and communicate effectively. We won’t come out of this corona crisis with an automatically sustainable future just because we have seen a reduction in global travel and localised air pollution. Greenhouse gases are still increasing.  When we finally manage to deal with COVID19 as we eventually will, we can take comfort from the fact that governments and societies can work in tandem to implement deep and profound changes to the way we all behave. It will put us all in the right mindset and give us the confidence and drive to achieve the achievable.


[1] The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), Global Monitoring Laboratory, May 2020

[2] Kommenda, N (2020), How is the coronavirus affecting global air traffic? The Guardian, April [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2020/apr/03/how-is-the-coronavirus-affecting-global-air-traffic

[3]Nunez, C (2020), Carbon dioxide levels are at a record high. Here’s what you need to know, The National Geographic, May 2019 [Online]. Available at:  https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/greenhouse-gases/

[4] What is “decarbonisation” of the power sector? Why do we need to decarbonise the power sector in the UK? (2020), London School of Economics, [Online]. Available at: http://www.lse.ac.uk/GranthamInstitute/faqs/what-is-decarbonisation-of-the-power-sector-why-do-we-need-to-decarbonise-the-power-sector-in-the-uk/

[5] World Health Organization. Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), 16-24 February 2020.

[6] Pollock Allyson M, Roderick Peter, Cheng KK, Pankhania Bharat. Covid-19: why is the UK government ignoring WHO’s advice? BMJ March 2020

[7] D. Disparte, The Harvard Business Review, 2017, If You Think Fighting Climate Change Will Be Expensive, Calculate the Cost of Letting It Happen, [Online]. Available at: https://hbr.org/2017/06/if-you-think-fighting-climate-change-will-be-expensive-calculate-the-cost-of-letting-it-happen

[8] IPCC website: https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/

[9] Verbruggen A., Yurchenko Y. (2019) The Collision of Atomic and Flow Renewable Power in Decarbonization of Electricity Supply. Energy Policy and Climate Protection. Springer VS, Wiesbaden

[10]Eric Roston and Akshat Rathi, Bloomberg, 19 May 2020, [Online]. Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-05-19/how-has-covid-19-affected-climate-change-co-emissions

[11] Webster, P (2020) Canada and COVID-19: learning from SARS, The Lancet, Volume 395, Issue 10228, 936 – 937, March 2020.

[12] https://ec.europa.eu/environment/archives/industry/stationary/lcp/legislation.htm

[13] Gelbspan, R. (1997). The Heat Is On: The Climate Crisis, The Cover-up, The Prescription.

[14] IEA (2017), Renewables 2017, IEA, Paris https://www.iea.org/reports/renewables-2017

[15] Richard Lowes, Bridget Woodman,Disruptive and uncertain: Policy makers’ perceptions on UK heat decarbonisation, Energy Policy, Volume 142, 2020

[16] ONS. (2019). Gross domestic expenditure on research and development, UK: 2017.

https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/governmentpublicsectorandtaxes/researchanddevelopmentexpendit

ure/bulletins/ukgrossdomesticexpenditureonresearchanddevelopment/2017

[17] Allan, J., Donovan, C., Ekins, P., Gambhir, A., Hepburn, C., Reay, D., Robins, N., Shuckburgh E. and Zenghelis, D. (2020). ‘A net-zero emissions economic recovery from COVID-19’. COP26 Universities Network Briefing.

[18] J Ambrose, (2020) UK government lifts block on new onshore windfarm subsidies, The Guardian, March 2020,  [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/mar/02/uk-government-lifts-block-on-new-onshore-windfarm-subsidies

[19] Dechezlepretre et al policy brief Jan 2016

[20] Iacobucci Gareth. Covid-19: all non-urgent elective surgery is suspended for at least three months in England BMJ 2020; 368 :m1106

[21] Science Based Targets Initiative website: https://sciencebasedtargets.org/

[22] https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/streamlined-energy-and-carbon-reporting

[23] A Wilder-Smith, MD, D O Freedman, MD, Isolation, quarantine, social distancing and community containment: pivotal role for old-style public health measures in the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak, Journal of Travel Medicine, Volume 27, Issue 2, March 2020, taaa020,

[24] O., Milman, The Guardian Pandemic side-effects offer glimpse of alternative future on Earth Day 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/22/environment-pandemic-side-effects-earth-day-coronavirus

[25] Pukka Teas website: https://www.pukkaherbs.com/wellbeing-articles/our-carbon-footprint.html

[26]Do Nation website:  https://www.wearedonation.com/

[27]The UK Atomic Energy Authority website: https://ccfe.ukaea.uk/fusion-energy/fusion-in-brief/

2 thoughts on “‘How do we build from the current corona crisis towards a more sustainable future?’

Add yours

  1. A very enlightening and interesting article as usual Sarah. I really enjoyed your thoughts linking defeating Covid 19 strategies to Environmental Sustainability. Hopefully soon you like the rest of us will be able to travel again globally although how environmentally as well as healthy and sustainable this can be is another question. Hope you and your family are well and hopefully we shall be able to catch up in the not too distant future. All the best. Mark.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Mark, I’m glad you enjoyed reading the article. We’ll have to see what happens. Looks like travel is starting to open up again. I hope we can find a way to do so sustainably. I hope you and the family are well too and looking forward to seeing you all when we can, have a lovely weekend, Sarah

      Like

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