Out of a crisis, an opportunity for a greener future arises

5 May 2020

Image: photodiod.gmail.com/Depositphotos

We must not squander the opportunity we have in this moment to take effective climate action, writes Elaine Burke.

It was the thought that launched a thousand memes. In recent weeks, many Twitter users shared images of Venice’s canals looking cleaner and more tranquil than ever in recent memory as evidence of a bright side to the Covid-19 pandemic. The internet did what it will with sincere and spurious material, taking the idea that nature was ‘healing’ due to restrictions on human activity and making it a punchline. The “we are the virus” meme quickly caught on and we saw everything from dinosaurs and rubber ducks to Teletubbies and Lime scooters ‘return’ to their natural habitats.

However sardonic its turn, the original sentiment was one of hope. Could we have in fact – by accident and not design – finally taken the right steps needed to slow the effects of the climate crisis and help save the planet from catastrophe?

With more than one-third of the world’s population under various states of lockdown and social restrictions, national transport has been minimised, international travel is becoming a faraway dream, and consumption has been pared back.

And yet, the drastic change of lifestyle we are currently going through – changes that many believe will have a lasting impact on how we live and work in future – is not enough. The UN has recommended a 7.6pc reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions each year for the next decade in order to keep to the minimum 1.5 degree Celsius warming set out by the Paris Agreement. The present pandemic has seen these emissions drop by about 5.5pc.

‘Now is our chance to remake society’

As has long been advocated by experts, the actions of individuals will not be enough to mitigate the climate crisis we were in before the coronavirus crisis. Now, we have the evidence. Even with people around the world staying at home as much as possible and consuming less to sustain themselves, we can’t turn back the clock on Earth’s ticking time bomb.

Let’s not forget the concerns we had before Covid-19 was sweeping across the globe. Should we fail to keep within 1.5 degrees of warming, the effects will make the current state of affairs look like a cosy memory. (That’s not to be dismissive of lives affected by coronavirus, but to put into perspective the large-scale loss and destruction that will be wrought by global climate catastrophes.)

But just like the opportunistic Jersey City mayor taking the chance to remodel city hall while no one’s passing through, now is our chance to remake society. Quick, pedestrianise the city centre while no one’s looking!

I’m not really being facetious. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced businesses to make structural changes some employees have been requesting for years, only to be told they couldn’t or wouldn’t be enacted due to feasibility, cost and, frankly, lack of motivation. Yet here we are in a situation where any business that can be done remotely is done so. It turns out a crisis can be a great motivator.

The same opportunity must be grasped for the climate. We know now that individual action will only go so far and we need significant restructuring of industry and infrastructure to reach the targets set out in the Paris Agreement.

‘While coronavirus is unpicking the strings that hold the current system together, we can start to stitch together something new and sustainable’

Political leadership is the only thing that is going to make that happen and, at present in Ireland, we are still waiting – almost three months since a general election – for a government to form. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are finally taking leave of the idea that they are two distinct parties, and are in talks with the possible kingmakers: the Green Party. These talks are expected to take weeks, which is a regrettable continuing delay to act on the opportunity that presents itself.

This will be the ultimate test for the Green Party. These talks will tell if their commitment is to climate action or to political posturing. If they stick to their commitment to at least 7pc annual reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, we might just have some hope.

We have a golden opportunity, as write and environmental activist George Monbiot put it, to bail out the planet. While coronavirus is unpicking the strings that hold the current system together, we can start to stitch together something new and sustainable.

It will be challenging and it will cost money, but we didn’t get into the situation we’re currently in because it’s easy to climb back. We may have inherited this climate crisis but it’s of our society’s making, and it’s high time we recognise that and rise to the challenge instead of handwringing about what it will take. There is no alternative. It will cost what it costs and it has to be done regardless. The planet is in increasing need of life support and we don’t have time to argue about the cost of keeping it alive.

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Little girl with rainbow painting in window. Image: photodiod.gmail.com/Depositphotos

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic