COVID-19 is an opportunity to reset our environmental future

You may have seen some of the discussions around environmental silver linings to the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.

The overall environmental narrative is inconsistent, as policy and energy experts express differing opinions over how to interpret what’s happened so far.

Certainly, there have already been short-term benefits.

We are seeing short-term benefits as a result of COVID-19 shutdowns including improvements in air quality. Picture: Shutterstock

Local air and water quality have dramatically improved in several areas that have implemented shutdowns.

Emissions have dropped, and worldwide, the demand for coal and oil is lower than it has been in a long time ­– due in large part to the decline in demand from transport and slowdown in manufacturing.

Reports of animals coming out to breed and play while humans are locked inside are being celebrated, and the profile of the illegal wildlife trade issue has been raised.

But we need to be careful about extrapolating these benefits or claiming an environmental win. The unprecedented situation we are facing at the moment is still unfolding, and much will depend on what happens next.

Benefits need to be sustainable

Let’s take a look back to recent history.

In 1997 the international Kyoto Protocol was drawn up, which saw many countries commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and its first commitment period began in 2008.

Right around the time of the Global Financial Crisis.

Many countries actually met their Kyoto targets on account of the economic downturn, but the effect on emissions trajectories was only temporary.

Hitting emissions targets for a short-term period is nowhere near as important as engineering a society and economy that can sustainably and prosperously run off low or zero net emissions into the future.

This goal has been embraced across Australia. All of our states and territories have committed to a net zero economy by 2050, and a nationwide target, supported by many including the Business Council of Australia, was being debated right before COVID-19 effectively bookmarked the issue.

While some people have argued that we need to either stop focusing on economic growth or at least decouple growth from fossil fuel emissions, shutting down the economy and grounding people indoors is neither a desirable nor sustainable way to do this.

COVID-19 response measures have been extreme and might be considered “draconian” if we weren’t facing a public health catastrophe to justify them.

The curtailment of basic freedoms has led to serious mental health and wellbeing impacts.

We can’t tackle climate change the same way that we are approaching coronavirus. Nonetheless, the COVID-19 crisis offers a critical opportunity for the environment in two key respects.

The pandemic has forced us to alter our behaviour in significant ways, not all of which will necessarily reverse. Picture: Shutterstock

Behaviour change barrier broken

First, the response to COVID-19 has demonstrated what can be done differently.

It’s forced us to alter our behaviour in significant ways, not all of which will necessarily reverse after restrictions are lifted.

In future, we may see less unnecessary interstate and international travel after experiencing success with remote online meetings, conferences, and even court hearings.

Through this and the country’s bushfire crisis that preceded it, Australians have already shown a willingness to buy locally, supporting farmers and neighbourhood suppliers.

Along with hand sanitiser and toilet paper, the likes of vegetable seeds, craft materials, sourdough starter, and humble forms of entertainment like puzzles and board games, have experienced a dramatic surge in popularity as people reconnect with forgotten notions of self-sufficiency and simplicity.

With many shops closed, people are purchasing pre-loved goods from those in their local community through online marketplaces.

Through this, we have already overcome an important barrier to behaviour change.

Business looks very different to what it did only six months ago, and business-as-usual is about as stubborn as it comes.

We can absolutely take advantage of this shift.

The government faces a pivot point where it can choose to move away from fossil fuel dependency. Picture: Getty Images

A pivot point for the clean energy transition

After having broken down, we get to rebuild, and we have choices in the way that we do this.

Some of these will be dictated by the need to get essential services back up and running as soon as possible. But as governments devise economic stimulus packages, they can harness this opportunity to foster the dual benefit of accelerating the transition to a cleaner economy needed to address climate change.

Some measures that have been suggested include taking advantage of low oil prices to remove fossil fuel subsidies; or providing guarantees to private investors wishing to use low interest rates to invest in renewable technologies that need greater investment, like hydrogen.

The International Energy Agency, which is preparing a special report to offer guidance to governments, has warned that we could ‘compound the tragedy’ if we let the measures we take now hinder the clean energy transition, when they could have advanced it.

This is a critical message – experts have calculated that the damage to the Australian economy from climate change could be $A762 billion by 2050.

The government is now facing an unexpected potential pivot point where it can effectively choose to lock in a degree of fossil fuel dependency into the future or move away from it.

A pathway with co-benefits

Rather than looking at 2020 as the manifestation of two separate crises, we can look at it from the perspective of experiencing interconnected events.

The global response to COVID-19 has already overcome an important barrier to behaviour change. Picture: Getty Images

Social, economic and environmental systems are inextricably linked, and major disruptions to these systems rarely occur as isolated events.

Climate change could increase the likelihood of more wildlife-human disease transfers in future. The need to prioritise hard and fast short-term action will challenge how well we can think ahead to flow-on, compound effects that threaten the economy and society over a longer timescale.

Although trade-offs are inevitable in responding to complex problems, key decision-makers need to look for pathways with co-benefits.

The global response to COVID-19 has already exhibited environmental benefits.

But the simple answer to whether the pandemic will have long-term positive effects depends on whether we choose to harness critical opportunities to promote individual and collective behaviour change, and to foster rather than sideline the clean energy transition.

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