This recession, precipitated by Covid-19, was always likely to be unique. But one area where it has been unprecedented is the impact that the global lockdown has had on our environment.
In previous recessions, although economic activity slowed, it never had a significant, even recordable, impact on our natural world. Indeed, governments have even quietly forgotten about environmental goals in order to get their economies firing again. In 2007, for instance, the UK government introduced ambitious goals around carbon trading – something that was largely ‘forgotten’ about until the economy began to recover.
This time, however, we seem to have reached a tipping point. The last few years have been dominated by mega storms, out of control wildfires, persistent droughts, and now a global pandemic, making our very human condition, that is to say social contact, a potentially deadly act. Finally, economic growth and protecting the environment are seen as not being mutually exclusive. Intertwining these trends will have a massive impact on our businesses and policy making moving forward.
Due to the pandemic, the lockdowns, and the huge reduction on global emissions, scientists across the globe have been able to really understand the impact that people are having on the environment. Although this won’t have much of an impact on the decades of damage wrought on the environment, it at least highlights how quickly the environment can begin to recover. The murky waters around Venice have cleared, the Himalayas are visible again from towns and cities in northern India. Even cities that have traditionally choked in clouds of toxic pollution from Delhi to Shanghai, have begun to clear. These temporary benefits allow us a glimpse into a world that is achievable, should we take the chance to invest in it.
However, just as the pandemic is having a positive effect on the environment, there is also a counter argument – that apparently negative environmental measures can also greatly improve the health of our environment longer term. Bear with me here as I explain.
Australia saw the worst bush fires in its history in 2019, with over 72,000 square miles of land going up in smoke. An estimated one billion animals lost their lives, with many being driven to near extinction as a result. Even Chile and Argentina, countries that over over 6,800 miles away, were affected by the black, acrid smoke that was thrown up into the atmosphere and carried across the Pacific. NASA estimate that 302 million tonnes of CO2 were released by this catastrophe. But this was a natural disaster that wasn’t avoidable, right? Well not exactly. Through some careful planning and preventative measures, the impact of this and subsequent fires could be substantially reduced.
Forest fires and bush fires are natural events, and they are essential to the Australian ecosystem. Old vegetation is cleared, allowing new plants to grow.
However, the scale of this bush fire was larger than any before it, and not just because of increasingly high global temperatures or a high wind. It was also exacerbated by people who were trying protect the environment. Historically, Aboriginal people, who have inhabited Australia for over 30,000 years, would clear bushland with controlled fires, creating breaks in the bush across the landscape, meaning that an uncontrolled wildfire didn’t have the ability to gather momentum. This preventative measure has been severely curtailed over the last 20 years in the name of cost-cutting and environmental protection, so that now only 1% of fire-prone land has been managed in a way that protects it from fires. The remaining land has effectively become a huge kindling box, a perfect storm for when the next wildfire takes hold.
Tim Blair, a columnist for the Australian Daily Telegraph, spoke about his grandfather who was intent on burning bush to create fire delaying dirt paths, even when he was threatened with fines not to. He persisted, and when the 2019 mega-fire tore through the surrounding landscape, it went right by his farm, saving his property and his livelihood, unable to cross the barriers he had created. Elsewhere in Australia, people have faced fines of up to $100,000 AUD for clearing bush or trees that would provide added protection to their properties. In 2004, Liam Sheehan was charged for clearing land around his hill-top property in Reed Creek, Victoria. Five years later when a bush fire hit in the ‘Black Saturday’ fires, his was the only property left standing.
In other areas, our inability to strike the right environmental balance has meant that we end up causing more damage. Take electric cars, as an example. We are looking to governments to provide subsidies and even support scrappage schemes to remove older, polluting cars from our roads. These cars are proven to have lower CO2 output over the remainder of their lifetime than the newer electric cars, which while having no local emissions, are producing high levels of impact through their manufacture and potentially short shelf life. Not to mention the issue of safely disposing of the toxic elements in their batteries. Whilst it’s essential that we transition to new technologies in the longer term, we mustn’t fool ourselves that it’s environmentally friendly to swap out an old car for a new one. Having a slightly more Cuban approach to the automotive market – that is to say making do with older cars for longer – would have a positive short and medium-term impact on the environment, but it wouldn’t be as good for our economies.
Likewise, take plastic. At the moment it has a huge amount of negative press for its impact on the environment. Rightly so if we consume and dispose of it in huge quantities. However, it could be argued that plastic is a long-term form of carbon capture, as the oil it has come from hasn’t been burned. Used as a single use or ‘recyclable’ product is in fact the most damaging side of plastic.
Using it as a highly technical insulation material in a house which will be around for the next 100 years makes environmental sense. We need to have a grown-up conversation around it. We need to stop using all single-use plastic products, instead favouring bio-degradable plant-based plastics and alternatives such as aluminium, which provide much better long-term solutions. Simply ostracising plastic puts us, and the environment, at a disadvantage.
Finally, and perhaps most controversially, we need to come to terms with the fact that our fascination with recycling may be harming the environment more than we think. Take plastic waste in the UK as an example: 80% of it currently isn’t processed in-country, meaning that it’s exported to third world countries in the hope that it will be recycled. Very little of it in fact does, and it is either bulldozed into a landfill, burnt, or released into the natural environment, where it then spends decades slowly decaying. Our conscience is clear, but the reality is that our focus on recycling is more for appearances sake, and for the economics of burying it in our own back yard.
The argument here isn’t that we should just give up on recycling altogether, but it is a good example of a perceived ‘good’ behaviour that ends up harming our environment in other unforeseen ways. Surely a more considered approach would be to focus our efforts on engineering new biodegradable products. If you could get to a situation where most of the waste of households was able to be composted, we could close the loop on a huge amount of waste. Having the ability to throw out a ready meal, knowing that the food waste and packaging will both decompose in order to become fertiliser for fields, is surely a better solution than shipping it around the world so that it can be rubbish in someone else’s country?
Government intervention could be key here. If they required all product manufacturers to be responsible for their waste, then we might see more investment in newer bio-degradable products. Either you would have to make your packaging organic or you would be responsible for the collection and disposal of your waste. Moving away from complicated recycling processes that mixes contaminated waste and shipping it overseas needs to happen. We can’t stop living in the modern world, and continued consumption is vital for economic growth. Surely then, we need to take the bigger picture on our environment and end meaningless policies that are preventing us from having a true symbiosis with our natural world.