Bryt Insight May 2021
As every area of the globe feels the effects of coronavirus, daily life has changed dramatically. Now several months into this crisis, the world has been given a view into how the environment reacts in the absence of normal daily human activity.
As keen as we are to return to normality, what can we learn from this crisis and how can we use this insight to build a healthier, more sustainable future?
Hope for a low carbon future
As our daily lives and behaviours have adapted dramatically for coronavirus, the world is noticeably quieter, cleaner, and wilder. Reports show that human activity is at its lowest on record1, and demand across industries has plummeted2. This lower demand, with greater proportion of renewables in use3, has resulted in lower emissions and thriving nature. Through this, we’ve had an unprecedented glimpse into what our world could look like. It’s demonstrated that radical behavioural change can rapidly reduce emissions.
Worldwide reductions in travel have resulted in a fall in emissions. There was an estimated 5% global CO2 reduction for Q1 20203.
Figure 1: Global energy-related CO2 emissions, 1900-2020 – International Energy Association
During their virus peak, it’s estimated that China’s carbon emissions dropped by 25%4 whilst carbon monoxide emissions fell by 50% during one week in New York5. Similarly, methane and nitrogen dioxide levels have fallen in Italy6 and the UK7. Clearly, rapid emission reduction is possible, but we will need extensive, worldwide changes if we are to see this going forwards.
Nature bounces back
There have also been widespread reports of nature flourishing. Deer in Haridwar, wild boar in Barcelona and the Llandudno goats8, all show wildlife extending into quieter cities. Bees are thriving on the wildflowers of uncut verges9 and, with less traffic noise, bird song can be heard.
Risk falling behind in sustainability action
Whilst offering a hopeful glimpse into a more sustainable future, such news shows that action is needed now more than ever.
The changes are temporary
It is neither desirable nor realistic for recent behaviour changes to be a method for reducing emissions and they will inevitably rise as we return to normality. China is showing an increase in emissions as restrictions have been lifted4 and it is likely that we will begin seeing the same in Italy and France.
Sustainability on pause
Understandably, attention has been pulled away from sustainability action during the crisis, but this poses long-term risks for climate change. Over a third of sustainability professionals in the UK have reported a pause on projects and investments10 and the postponement of COP26 may mean a pause on global policies with far-reaching consequences.
For biodiversity, an important aspect of preventing climate change and reducing emissions, there is a serious risk of future loss. Fire prevention work in the Amazon has been negatively affected11 and many ecological initiatives reliant upon tourist revenue now face failure12. With such uncontrollable factors affecting our efforts, it is particularly important to consider the sustainability actions within our control.
Risks from new habits
Behavioural changes have created new habits, some with increased emissions. Predictions from 2019 showed an 80% increase in data centre traffic by 202213, with data use expected to account for 14% of global emissions by 204014. With remote working being effective for many companies during the crisis and employees seeing work-life balance benefits, this is only likely to increase. As new practices develop it is important to consider any impacts and ensure that efficiency and sustainable options are considered.
How can we learn to achieve a sustainable future?
So, how can we continue our efforts and achieve the sustainable future we now know is possible?
1) Mindset change
In the last few months, the world has moved together to put people before profit. This is a monumental mindset change that highlights how, when needed, we can ‘be the change'. The current situation and its damage to our wellbeing and economy cannot continue, but nor can unethical business growth without thought for the long-term impacts. We must balance people, planet, and profit, for the sake of each.
2) Be smarter about our consumption
Recent reduced consumption will not continue, but we now have a unique opportunity to reflect, learn and change. Societies have been forced to think about their consumption on global, industrial, and personal scales15. Many are considering working from home as a longer-term option, whilst reduced accessibility has made us more aware of how we consume products, what we need and potentially how much we waste.
Energy use accounts for a substantial proportion of global emissions. With populations expected to grow16, this is likely to increase. Being more aware of our consumption, more efficient and less wasteful would be a big step towards reducing emissions and preventing climate change.
3) Rebuild in the right way
Whilst the International Energy Association (IEA) have proposed that this may be the end of coal power3, there is a risk of a move back to traditional investments in fossil fuels as countries rebuild. Instead, a continuation of last year’s sustainable investment movement17 would offer an economic boost in a way that helps everyone. Choosing sustainable products and services will be more important than ever, and there is both opportunity and responsibility for businesses within this.
4) We can do it together
The one overwhelming message from Covid-19 has been that we can do more when we are united. We have seen this in the collaborative efforts of governments, international organisations, businesses, and individuals world-wide in response to this crisis - together we really can make a difference.
Let’s do this
We have all faced loss and disruption over the last few months, and it will take time to recover. But let’s not forget this glimpse into what could be. Let’s rebuild to a healthier, happier future. Together, we’ve already proven we can make a difference, so let’s do this.
4. Carbon Brief
9. The Guardian
11. The Guardian
12. The Guardian
14. The Guardian
15. Bryt Energy
16. The UN
17. Bryt Energy