Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first ever Earth Day. Protests and demonstrations across the world in April 1970 marked the birth of the modern environmental movement. Now, fifty years later, as the world deals with the Coronavirus pandemic there will be no mass gatherings of people.
The world is going through an unprecedented lockdown, and these are strange, difficult and anxious times for everyone. Yet there are some reasons to have hope for the planet once we get through this.
1.The environment is getting a breather at the moment
Satellite data is showing us that the restrictions brought in to combat COVID are already having a dramatic impact on air pollution across the world. Over northern Italy, the images show a large drop in nitrogen dioxide, a gas mainly emitted by cars, trucks, and power plants.
This is significant. Recent research suggests that air pollution reduces global life expectancy by three years on average and is responsible for 9 million deaths per year. A Professor from Stanford University has even estimated that the reduction of air pollution in China due to the COVID lockdown has probably already saved the lives of 4,000 children under age 5 and 73,000 adults over 70.
The restrictions imposed by the global response to the pandemic, and the shrinking of economic activity will certainly result in a huge reduction in greenhouse gas emissions this year. While home energy consumption and internet usage will increase, the significant reduction in transport and air traffic will be unprecedented in modern times.
2.The changes we need to make aren’t anywhere near as bad as what we are currently enduring
The last few weeks have seen an extraordinary effort across our whole societies in order to tackle the pandemic. People have accepted that personal sacrifices are necessary to ‘flatten the curve’. We have seen strong leadership and stringent restrictions to daily life put into law.
In comparison, the actions we need to take to prevent climate breakdown are far less dramatic. We all know we need to consume less, fly less, drive less, and eat more sustainably. Yet these sacrifices are nowhere near as far-reaching as what we are currently experiencing, and proudly managing to pull off.
Mary Robinson has recently said that “we must not go back to bad habits afterwards. It will be easier to persuade people, as we have had to change so dramatically because of this threat.”
We have proven that we are incredibly adaptable. If we can do it for the coronavirus crisis we can do it for the climate crisis.
3.Isolation may make us reconsider our priorities
Our time in isolation from our family, friends and loved ones might give us a fresh perspective on what truly matters. We have an abundance of technological distractions, endless
things to watch or listen to, but it is human connection that we truly value the most.
Astronaut Helen Sharman recently shared her thoughts on how the extreme isolation of living in space affected her perspective on materialism. “In space, I did not once think about possessions. Back on Earth and confronted by materialism, I downgraded the relative value of ‘stuff’ in my life and I think COVID-19 will have a similar effect on many of us”.
4.Now is the time to wean ourselves off fossil fuels
We know that the economic impact of the current crisis is likely to be severe. Over half a million people in Ireland have already lost their jobs due to the pandemic. The World Bank is forecasting a major global recession that will likely hit the poorest and most vulnerable countries the hardest.
Major stimulus and bailout programmes have already been announced to fund the massive health response needed, and provide support to the unemployed. The EU has agreed on a €540 billion virus rescue package.
With oil prices plummeting, and the aviation sector in crisis, the fossil fuel industry is queuing up for bail out funds. Decisions will soon be made on whether billions of public funds will be used to prop up airlines and oil companies. The US has already agreed a $25 billion bailout for US airline companies.
Since the landmark Paris agreement was signed by governments in 2015, research shows that the world’s largest investment banks have pushed more than €2 trillion into fossil fuels.
Now more than ever is the time to use public funds to transition away from our dependence on fossil fuels.The opportunity to decarbonise our economies a decade ago using the massive bailout funds was missed. We shouldn’t miss the opportunity this time.
5.Clean energy is on the rise – and more quickly than expected
The good news is that there has been a huge shift in the last decade towards clean energy like solar and wind. Technologies are advancing quickly and have become far more affordable.
Renewable energy now makes up 26% of the world’s electricity supply today. Some reports are predicting the transition away from fossil fuels may now come decades earlier than oil companies have predicted. This is huge, but we need to make sure the current economic crisis doesn’t set things back.
6.Governments are (slowly) waking up to this issue
Over the last year, the climate has become one of the most talked about issues. ‘Our house is on fire’ spoke the teenage activist Greta Thunberg, who inspired a global movement of children to go on strike. Trócaire joined the school strikers on the streets as protests swept the globe.
In response to this growing pressure, our government announced a ‘climate emergency’ and unveiled a new climate action plan. While the plan does not go far enough, it is the most ambition we’ve seen from our leaders yet.
Climate action became a prominent election issue, and as coalition negotiations are ongoing, it is one of the main issues on the agenda in government formation talks.
A few years ago, the idea of a ‘Green New Deal’ was a fringe one. Now it is part of the policies of our mainstream parties, and the EU has signed up to an ambitious new €1 trillion European Green Deal.
Given the scientists argue that we have just ten years left to halve emissions and stay below the relatively safe level of 1.5C of planetary warming, governments need to take this seriously and act quickly.
If a ‘Green New Deal’ is done well, we can have a ‘just transition’, where we begin to seriously phase out of fossil fuels in the coming decade, while providing new jobs to workers.
We can use stimulus packages in the wake of the pandemic to support workers in areas that will be affected by the transition, such as in energy and agriculture. We can create jobs in retrofitting homes, increasing biodiversity and in the clean energy sector.
7.We don’t have to wait until the pandemic is over to take action
Last week, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have agreed a Framework for Government and are now negotiating with the smaller parties and independents to form a Government. It is a crucial time to keep pressure on our newly elected representatives so that Climate Action stays high up on the agenda.
Take action now for Faster and Fairer Climate Action
As well as the government taking action, we can all take actions on a personal level too. The habits we are forming now can have a lasting impact. Many of us are adapting to work from home. As remote working becomes the new normal, the way we work may be permanently affected. It is likely that remote working will become far more commonplace after the pandemic ends, which will have a big impact on reducing emissions from commuting workers.
Buying shopping online may result in fewer short trips in the car to the shops in future. And who knows – maybe getting a 2km walk every day will encourage people to leave the car behind more often for short trips?
Our lives have been drastically affected, and the restrictions are tough on everyone. Yet maybe there are some good aspects that we might just keep.
The planet, and future generations, may just thank us.
COVID-19 knows no borders and neither does your compassion. We know not everyone is in a position to support this work right now, but if you can, please consider supporting our Lent appeal. Your support means we can support communities affected by COVID-19 in places like Syria, Gaza and Somalia.
You can donate online or by phoning:
1850 408 408 (Republic of Ireland)
0800 912 1200 (Northern Ireland).