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How should environmentalists respond to the coronavirus outbreak?

The latest figures predict that global carbon emissions from the fossil fuel industry could fall by a record 2.5bn tonnes this year. Largely due to the effects of the coronavirus outbreak, this could be the biggest decrease on record. The pandemic has caused unprecedented changes across all aspects of human activity. People are travelling less as a result and businesses are massively scaling back production  These changes have seriously reduced the demand for fossil fuels and will likely result in a huge drop in carbon emissions.

The reaction of many to this news has been largely positive.  People have been posting about it all over social media, celebrating it as the upside of this tragedy. The air is less polluted and water is getting cleaner. However, this cannot be taken in isolation. For two reasons. Firstly, it’s not all positive for the environment. China has seen a surge in household rubbish due to lockdown, medical waste has increased dramatically, and disinfection regimes across the globe have introduced toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it’s highly insensitive.

The pandemic has caused unprecedented changes across all aspects of human activity

To revel in the environmental benefits of the current crisis is seriously crass. To suggest that the global pandemic was exactly what the world needed is either a fantastic demonstration of a certain breed of vacuous social media user, or a really horrid attack on those who are suffering at this time. Over 205k people have died from COVID-19. These are people who had families, friends, and other loved ones. The hurt it has caused is staggering. To ignore this and delight in the fact that emissions have dropped is wrong. It is a deeply inhuman reaction, exhibiting a real lack of compassion.

There are of course environmental lessons to be found amongst the current chaos, but they should be discussed sensitively.  These lessons mostly stem from the way we’ve had to live in lockdown. Whilst living in this strange state of isolation long-term wouldn’t be great, there are elements that we can take forward from it. 

To suggest that the global pandemic was exactly what the world needed is either a fantastic demonstration of a certain breed of vacuous social media user, or a really horrid attack on those who are suffering at this time

Firstly, it would hugely benefit the environment if everyone were to continue exercising, and doing so close to their home. Many people have discovered passions for very basic forms of exercise and have had no choice but to develop them around their home. I certainly hope this carries on. Instead of driving to the South Downs or the Peak District for a hike, people should explore their local area. Instead of driving to the shops to buy a loaf of bread, perhaps people will walk instead, helping reduce their carbon-footprint in the process.

Secondly, reducing the number of times we fly is an important lesson that should be taken forward after lockdown. Whilst I’m fairly sure this won’t happen, it would be great if it did. There is likely to be a huge burst in the number of flights once the government lifts travel restrictions,  however some people may realise they don’t need to step on a plane quite so much.  Not being able to do so for the duration of lockdown might result in some opting for the train next time they need to go from London to Newcastle.

This could be the start of a working-from-home revolution which cuts commuter emissions in half

Lastly, I would hope that some businesses and their employees might come to the realisation that many of their jobs can be conducted just as well, or even better, at home. With people being forced to work from home, businesses have had to adapt to the digital world. Perhaps it is no longer essential for every employee to commute to work every day? More than this, some may be finding that they can do their job much more efficiently without having to spend hours on trains every day or worrying about being back home in time to pick up their children from school or cook supper. This could be the start of a working-from-home revolution which cuts commuter emissions in half.

So, there you have it: three environmental lessons we could choose to take from this situation. They are important lessons, but it would have been infinitely better if it didn’t take this misery for us to learn them.

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