After the world mobilised into a global grounding for Covid-19, planes and cars were left mostly stationary, causing a significant dip in carbon emissions. There have been several other uncanny benefits for the environment since the virus, but will they stick?
Words by Ella Liascos
Photography by Dino Kužnik
People’s creative ingenuity has flourished since the virus, much of it being siphoned into the humble meme. One circulating the internet reads “it feels like we’ve all been sent home to think about what we’ve done,” in reference to the impending climate crisis, which for now, has been upstaged by Covid-19.
Aside from imbuing thought, the virus has led to several environmental benefits, significantly reduced air pollution being just one of them. The peaks of the Himalayas are now visible for the first time in decades, thanks to reduced industrial activity, airline and car travel. After China’s population was asked to stay home, emissions plummeted to 25% at the start of the year. Satellite images show huge drops in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions over Italy, Spain and the UK.
For the climate concerned, these are life affirming side effects, but will they last? That depends on our habits.
“The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than the destination.”
Driving and plane travel contribute 72% of emissions from transport, which explains the improved air quality we’ve seen during lockdown. But maintaining that improvement requires we continue to reduce our plane and car travel to what is necessary. That might mean reevaluating the need for an annual trip to Europe; a luxury that many have developed a taste for in the last few decades since aviation has become increasingly affordable. Travel has turned into an annual right of passage, a mental health check, or a way to get over a breakup.
But perhaps it’s a lifestyle we can learn to enjoy in moderation and find a similar satisfaction closer to home. In his book The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton suggests, “the pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to,” and therefore something we can cultivate. That pleasure we derive from travel often comes from being present to the smallest subtleties of our surroundings. The warm sliver of sun through the train window as you gaze at Sri Lanka’s rolling tea country for example, is a joy that can also be tapped into with a cup of coffee on the porch, simply by practicing paying attention. When we need a clean break from the places we carry out our daily routines, there’s local b&b’s and camping spots waiting for us in the unexplored nooks of our own country.
Reducing emissions not only requires a shift in our habits, but our mentality and it’s not as impossible as it sounds. In fact, history shows it’s been done before.
“The virus has given the world a chance to pause and try on a new, slower lifestyle for size.”
In a 2018 study, Corinne Moser of Zurich University of Applied Sciences found when people were unable to drive and given free e-bike access, they drove much less after they got their car back. Similarly, in 2001, Satoshi Fujii at Kyoto University found the same thing happened and when the closed motorway reopened; people who were previously committed drivers, used public transport more often.
According to Phillipa Lally’s 2009 study published in the Journal of Social Psychology, it takes on average 2 months to rewire a new habit. Perhaps it was a rewiring of neural circuitry that changed the people in these case studies, or maybe that they discovered the benefits of their new habits; like reading a book on the way to work without the stress of navigating traffic, or the fresh air between bus stops. Either way, it’s good news for the planet, which has now been in lockdown for just over 3 months, giving all of us ample time to rewire our neural circuitry.
Social media has provided a window into the new behaviours people have been adopting to pass the time in isolation — many of which, coincidentally are positive for the environment. Whether it’s gardening, taking work conferences at home instead of flying, or supporting local business.
In assessing whether the virus has changed our relationship with the natural world, David Remnick interviewed residents in New York, who all share how since Covid, they’ve spent more time in natural areas like local parks and walking trails to pass the time while their usual afternoon watering holes are closed. For the environmentalist, this is promising. As David Attenborough once said, “no one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they’ve never experienced.” In a way, the virus has given the world a chance to pause and try on a new, slower lifestyle for size, but only time will tell whether these habits will stick.
On a larger scale however, there’ve been some more permanent changes. Take China’s wild animal consumption industry for example. After the virus hit, the consequences of this behaviour led to the ban of wild animal consumption (including cats and dogs) in both Schenzen and Zhuhai in China because of the industry’s link to the pandemic.
“In times of crisis, it’s natural to spread stories of hope, but hope alone is no grounds for the future we’ve been glimpsing.”
While handwritten letters and newspaper columns were insights into the general feeling of the world during past crises, social media is that outlet for today. Images of dolphins populating the canals of Venice swiftly went viral, before being outed as fake and in fact filmed in Sardinia.
But it’s not so much their validity that’s significant, but their virility. Why have these images touched us enough to spread among millions of people? Seeing a glimpse of what the world could be, is like a dulcet lullabye for many in the face of crisis and environmental breakdown. Take for example the video The Great Realisation, which has received nearly 4 million views on Youtube, depicting a man telling his son a bedtime story, of how Covid-19 was the turning point that made us change our lifestyles to centre around our communities and the natural world.
In times of crisis, it’s natural to spread stories of hope, but hope alone is no grounds for the future we’ve been glimpsing in these Eden-like viral images. While plane and car travel has reduced for now, logging projects in the Nambucca State Forest in New South Wales and Tasmania’s Tarkine continue. Drops in CO2 are promising indeed, but not an unusual side effect of a pandemic. The Black Death in 14th Century Europe and smallpox in 16th Century South America, both saw slight drops in CO2 levels like we have today, before increasing again post-pandemic. As we’ve seen in the past, there’s always the option to return to the same system, but this time our CO2 budget isn’t giving much remaining leeway.
“Past revolutions have begun with small minorities pushing for change.”
To move our world in the greener direction many of us hope for after Covid, there not only needs to be a change of habits at a corporate and legislative level, but at an individual level. Past revolutions have begun with small minorities pushing for change, like Mandela’s divesting campaign, which is what ultimately ended Apartheid in the early 90’s. Just like we can practice our right to vote, we can also vote with our dollar by divesting from companies that support fossil fuels by switching to an ethical bank or super company. Other individual shifts to consider are limiting overseas travel to once every couple of years, taking video conferences instead of flying for work meetings and walking to local shops to save driving across town.
Fuelled by an image of a greener world where the peaks of the Himalayas can be seen in their glory, the answer to the question of whether Covid-19 will benefit our environment long term, will be revealed in time. As the consumers and travellers of the world, we get to write that story.
Ella Liascos is an Australian writer based in Byron Bay, specialising in writing for sustainable and creative businesses. Recently she's founded Sun Juju, a business focused on creating plastic free, reef-safe sunscreen and donating a portion of profits to the Climate Foundation's marine permaculture project.