A narrative that has emerged since the start of the Covid crisis is that lockdown has been a good thing for the planet. The story goes that being forced to stop driving places, flying and generally doing stuff has meant that we are emitting way less carbon. There are several problems with this idea; one is that it’s not that clear cut how positive the environmental impact of the Covid lockdown has been when you look at the actual data.
For instance, CO2 concentrations will continue to rise, even in 2020: despite a 4-8% fall in global emissions since the start of the crisis, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is estimated to still increase this year. Carbon Dioxide is being emitted faster than natural sinks can absorb the carbon; in other words, the fall in emissions is too low to make a real difference. Take this comparison: the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere we would have expected to increase by 0.68% in 2020, compared to the 2019 global average. What is it projected to be this year with lockdown factored in? 0.60%. Looking at the figures, it becomes difficult to say that lockdown has actually been all that environmentally advantageous.
The truth is, fundamental requirements to achieve Net Zero are largely unchanged by the COVID-19 pandemic. We still need to make our homes way more energy efficient. We still need to find some way to reforest large parts of the countryside. We still need to transition away from petroleum-based fuels. Beyond the fact that the environmental impact of lockdown is not as great as reputed, shutting down great portions of society permanently was always going to be a poor solution to the climate crisis.
Having said all of that, there are lessons from lockdown that can be learned for environmentalists. Pre-crisis, commuting and business travel made up around a third of transport-related carbon emissions. While the impact of more people working at home isn’t wholly environmentally positive – a lot more energy is being consumed in homes, to take one big example of a negative impact of home-working on the environment – getting more people off the road has obviously been positive for the environment. Even if people do head back to the office in bigger numbers once the Covid crisis is deemed to be at an end, whenever that might be, trying to limit the number of cars used in commuting would be advantageous. Pre-crisis, more than 50% of workers in Britain used a motor vehicle to commute, whereas only 4% cycled to work. Now that we have confirmed via experience that cutting down on commuting cars is positive, we can try and continue that trend.
Demonstrating that carbon emissions can come down if we actively try and cut them may be the lasting legacy of the lockdown from an environmental perspective. That in and of itself should be seen as a positive.