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Is the ‘new normal’ a chance to reassess our attitudes to the environment?

Is the ‘new normal’ a chance to reassess our attitudes to the environment?

COVID-19 caused a global lockdown that saw CO2 emissions plummet while we stayed in our homes and stopped traveling around the world. But leading scientists have crunched the numbers and agreed that the pandemic has barely made a dent in the path of climate change.

“The idea of COVID slowing down the impact of global warming is a non-starter because it’s made very little difference,” said Professor Davidson who is Director of the Centre for Sustainable and Circular Technologies. “There are fewer airplanes flying in the sky but COVID hasn’t altered the bigger picture.”

For instance, the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Norway estimates the 4-5% worldwide drop in CO2 emissions during lockdown is equivalent to just 0.0010C less global warming. And, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that 2020 is likely to be the second warmest year on record.

The economic, social, and mental health costs of COVID-19 has been high, alongside the death toll that has now surpassed one million people worldwide. Huge mountains have been overturned to respond to this unprecedented situation, and environmentalists hope that this rapid global response could be a catalyst for a desperately needed worldwide change to curb climate change.

“I think coronavirus has shown us what can be achieved when faced with a huge existential threat,” said Professor Davidson. “It’s been encouraging to see the large-scale economic and political changes that have happened to tackle the issues. There are also lots of examples of positive environmental change as a result of the pandemic, particularly at a local level, such as in Amsterdam where they’ve altered their city transport infrastructure.”

So, has COVID-19 been good for the plight of global awareness and support to tackle climate change? “It’s double-edged,” explained Philippa Roberts, CEO of Binit UK – a waste and recycling business. “The lockdown did stop us traveling for work and pleasure, but I think the changes that happened will be short-lived. I also don’t think we can tackle climate change by being reductionist, because it’s very difficult to get people to change and live a lesser life – we’ve opened the gates on our way of life now, and they’re very difficult to close.”

Binit sees what we use and dispose of and there’s been unintended consequences of the pandemic that are not helpful in our pursuit of environmental sustainability, explained Philippa Roberts: “Unfortunately, we’ve seen a big shift back to the prevalence of single-use plastics and an increase in littering. A lot of hospitality businesses have resorted to providing a take-away service and we’re seeing an increase generally in the use of single-use cutlery, plates, and cups by lots of settings. They tend to be compostable but there’s a huge issue in that there are few centres in the UK that can compost them and therefore they end up being incinerated.

“This trend seems to me to be unnecessary in that the products are still being handled by the person serving it, the consumer, and then it’s being handled again by cleaning staff to be thrown away, so it still has as many touchpoints. It’s like there’s a perception that we need to throw everything away – just in case.

“There’s obviously been an increase in the use of disposable PPE, such as face masks and gloves, which are being discarded and ending up everywhere!

“But there are some enlightened businesses saying: we’re using so much stuff now; what are the alternatives and how can we still hit our climate change aspirations and be COVID-safe? But for those businesses trying to desperately keep a shop open or pay their employees, it’s become a lesser priority,” said Philippa Roberts.

With a second wave of coronavirus undermining efforts to return to normal, businesses and investors have had their confidence shaken again and countries across the world are a long way off being able to reach their pre-COVID productivity levels.

“The economic recovery could go one of two ways,” explained Professor Davidson. “There’s a view that we’ll bounce back greener and that when we invest in the economic recovery, it’ll be in green technologies; but we could be so destitute by the end of the pandemic that we’ll not care whether we’re green and funds will be spent elsewhere. However, the signs are there for a green recovery and the affirming rhetoric exists from the government.”

“I’d like to see the UK government seriously investing in green and sustainable high-tech business in a sustained way, so we can take fundamental scientific discoveries through to commercial success far more efficiently and competitively than we have been able to do in the past.

“I think there is an opportunity to do this with Brexit coinciding with COVID, resulting in fundamental changes. I think if we do the right things, make sound policies and invest in the right way then the UK has a real opportunity to recover onshore manufacturing and drive renewable energy forward in a way we didn’t do with North Sea oil.

“Increasing productivity is key to our future economic success and COVID has highlighted the need for resilience in our supply chain and how dependent we have become on global supply chains, particularly for vital resources such as pharmaceuticals,” said Professor Davidson.

COVID-19 has a dark cost for our lives, healthcare systems, economies, and mental health of people all around the world. The global response to tackle it has been fast and direct, with communities also stepping up to the challenge to make a difference and support each other. The pandemic has proved that change can happen and that people are capable of adapting and reassessing their values. Coronavirus is far from over, but climate change will not wait, so governments need to start planning for a new normal that facilitates a more responsible, healthier, and resilient future.

“I think COVID is an opportunity because a lot of things will change now and there’s more government funding out there for climate change initiatives. I think we can make radical change happen and I hope that people will grab the opportunity presented by coronavirus to do things differently,” concluded Philippa Roberts.

Making the shift to a circular economy will not be easy but the reward is a world where we consume less and live better within an economy that supports a more sustainable future.

Our Scale-up Programme is supporting innovative UK companies to raise public and private investment in order to tackle societal challenges such as achieving net zero. Find out how it could support your business to grow and innovate.

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