Could coronavirus shape a low-carbon society?

May 29, 2020
Dr Stuart Capstick

The coronavirus pandemic proves that society can be radically and quickly transformed when necessary. Dr Stuart Capstick from Cardiff University looks at the changes to our behaviour and the impact on our climate, but insists lower levels of pollution cannon be cited as ‘a good thing’ amid the pandemic.

For a number of years, researchers working on climate change, including many across GW4, have been calling for radical change at all levels, from how policy is designed, to the structure of the economy, to the practices and behaviours that shape our everyday lives. In making these calls, we have never felt this would be easy or straightforward. There has been a recognition, too, that the wrong type of social transformation could undermine the things that matter to our societies, and our wellbeing as citizens.

The coronavirus pandemic can appear relevant to climate action for two linked reasons. First, because it reveals how quickly and urgently changes to our lives and societies can occur; and second, because the lockdowns and restrictions around the world are leading directly to lower emissions from many activities. The Guardian reported that the coronavirus UK lockdown has resulted in a significant drop in air pollution in cites, including Bristol and Cardiff. The data shows a reduction in tiny particle pollution of a third to a half and for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution, the data also shows declines of a third to a half in Bristol and Cardiff.

However, we should be very careful in drawing conclusions or extrapolating to the future. This applies especially to any attempt to cast the pandemic in a positive light, if this overlooks the widespread suffering and distress it is causing.

The Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST), based at Cardiff University, was established with the central aim of understanding how we can live differently – and better – in ways that meet the need for systemic, deep and rapid emission reductions.

The idea for the CAST Centre was developed during 2018 before the 2019 surge in public concern pushed the profile of climate change up the political agenda. As CAST began to get going during 2019, we found ourselves already in a different landscape in terms of action on climate change. Public support for climate action was at an all-time high, alongside a new wave of climate activism and amid stark evidence of environmental crises around the world. With governments, universities and others declaring a ‘climate emergency’, there were encouraging signs that decision-makers and leaders are taking the issue seriously, too.

We are now experiencing an even more disrupted and fast-changing set of circumstances as the coronavirus pandemic spreads around the world. There is an understandable interest in drawing lessons from our suddenly altered ways of life, as we see unprecedented changes including cleaner air in our cities, shuttered airports, community support and self-organisation. Indeed, many of the things that climate researchers and activists have pressed for – less flying and driving, more virtual collaboration, reduced consumption – seem on the surface to be happening before our very eyes, whether we like it or not.

In the same way that society transformed to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, responding to climate change will also require transformation. The CAST Centre, along with the wealth of climate expertise and assets across GW4, is ideally placed to identify transformative solutions to climate change.

Is there an argument then for saying that the profound changes that have arrived in our lives represent in some ways a “good thing”? The answer to this question is an unequivocal, categorical no. We cannot disregard or misrepresent the circumstances that underpin these events. Many thousands have died around the world, and many more remain sick in hospital.

Social transformations that are imposed upon people of absolute necessity – to keep them alive and to prevent health services being overwhelmed – are not to be welcomed or treated lightly. Many of those who cannot work are losing income, children cannot attend school, and we are unable to spend time with loved ones. Those of us fortunate to stay safe and well might be glad to escape rush hour or spend time at home – relieved even to escape a meeting or two – but nobody wanted it to happen this way.

There are good reasons to pay attention to how the pandemic is changing the way we live and how we understand the world, to which the CAST Centre will be alert in the coming months. As well as the more visible adjustments to work and family life, there may be subtler but no less significant shifts in our perspectives.

It is hard to think of another time in recent memory, for example, when there has been such a clear sense of personal responsibility to take action as part of a shared, collective effort – even if for most of us this simply means staying at home and keeping our distance.

Changes to our working practices are likely to become commonplace, with many people finding that our colleagues are now transplanted to the screens of our homes rather than in meeting-rooms. Behaviour change is notoriously hard to achieve, but once it has happened new practices can be established which have their own footholds.

Research from the CAST Centre will, in time, explore the dynamics of the pandemic and its relationship with climate change and social transformation. However, for now, these are also important times to observe, learn and reflect.

Anticipating or imagining what dramatic changes to everyday life will be like is hard, and we tend to be understandably averse to this uncertainty. Experiencing and learning what dramatic changes to everyday life are actually like moves us beyond this uncertainty into new territory, where we might discover what really matters to us, and how to embed what matters into our decisions, routines and relationships with others and the natural world.  This includes climate change – and much else besides.

Our experiences now as individuals and households are being echoed at a larger scale in how we are re-evaluating society’s rules and our capacity for resilience. We can see more clearly than usual how our lives are linked to the choices of policy-makers, and to scientific expertise and advice.

Climate Assembly UK brought together people from all walks of life to discuss how the UK can reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, with expert panels providing additional facts and information including researchers from Cardiff University and the University of Bristol. Assembly members held their final meetings during April and May online due the coronavirus restrictions. They will submit their report to the government over the summer with recommendations expected to mirror some of the changes already implemented in the lockdown.

It remains to be seen whether this will provide breathing space for efforts to be redoubled, or result in a loss of focus on emissions reduction worldwide.

As we emerge blinking from our homes after weeks of lockdown, we might find opportunities to help a better, fairer and low-carbon society to take shape – whether this is through our household priorities, community efforts, or through measures taken by government. It will be up to us to draw on some of the same resolve we have rediscovered, in order to make sure this becomes a reality.


The original version of this article can be found on Wales Online.