Some of the most striking images of this global pandemic have been those from satellites measuring air pollution hotspots around the world.
Where last year, cities and regions were shrouded in dense clouds of pollutants like nitrous oxide, now they are almost clear. People who live in the some of the world’s most polluted places, like New Delhi, say they can breathe freely again. The brilliant spring weather has given us views across cities without the brown cloud of pollution hanging over them.
Sometimes it takes a sudden change to make you realise just how bad things were. We have lived with deadly levels of air pollution for years, which have made us more vulnerable to coronavirus. Now we have seen what it’s like to live without it. While the devastating health and economic impacts of the virus rightly demand our attention, we must also make time to think about how we avoid just going back to business-as-before.
Clear skies and clean air must become the new normal. We must re-design our cities, reclaiming the streets for cycling and walking, allowing people to walk along streets unpolluted by traffic.
There was justifiably an outcry when some local councils closed local parks in order to enforce social distancing rules. It highlighted how important green spaces are to our sense of wellbeing, and how unequal access is: the people who suffered most from the parks’ closure were those who didn’t have their own back garden and were more likely to live in small, overcrowded flats.
We should give everyone the right to access green, open space during social distancing measures (which may be with us for some time).
“We must not let the response to the coronavirus crisis make the climate and inequality crises even worse.”
One would hope that this fresh appreciation of outdoor space and clean air would be a lasting legacy of the Covid-19 lockdown, but securing some positive gains from the nightmare of the past few months won’t happen by default.
There are already growing voices demanding a different way out of the current crisis, saying the fastest way to restart the economy is to de-regulate – environmental protections have already been swept aside in the US. There is a real danger that we will rush headlong into business-as-before and end up accelerating climate-wrecking industries and deep inequalities. We must not let the response to the coronavirus crisis make the climate and inequality crises even worse.
So how do we avoid this? How do we use what we have learned during this crisis to pivot to a greener, fairer economy?
There are plenty of steps which could, and must, be taken now which would start us in the right direction.
As a start, the government should set strict climate conditions on any bailouts. All companies which are driving the climate crisis, and seeking government support, should be required to adopt targets in line with the Paris Agreement, and do the simple things every company should do, like pay their workers a fair wage and pay their tax. Covid-19 has “miraculously” allowed the government to discover that there is, after all, a magic money tree and that when there is a shared sense of emergency, and the political will is there, governments can do a huge amount in response, finding the money to do what needs to be done.
This now needs to be put to work to invest in a green economy, insulating and retrofitting all homes, which would create thousands of skilled jobs across the country and tackle fuel poverty.
The UK has some of the most energy-inefficient homes in Europe, leaving many families having to choose between food or staying warm. One dreads to think what the impact of Covid-19 might have been if it had struck in winter. It may well return then.
Our food system too needs to change. Covid-19 has shown us how vulnerable it is, with milk poured down the drain or crops left unpicked because there is no-one to harvest them and supermarkets dependent on long supply chains. At the same time, foodbanks have seen a huge increase in need, which they are struggling to meet.
This is a chance to re-imagine our food system, with support going to small farms and local shops. There should be funding for local food networks with a focus on agro-ecological farming, so we start the shift towards a resilient, localised and regenerative food and farming system.
National emergencies in the past, whether pandemics or wars, have driven major social and economic change. Coronavirus must do the same.
We have seen what’s possible. We have seen who we really depend on in our society. It’s opened eyes to the unfairness and inequality of the way things were before. This is the moment to change.
Let’s make the legacy of coronavirus the moment when we started to build a fairer, greener society, so that life is better for everyone and, even at the eleventh hour, we turn society around in time to avert climate breakdown.
Caroline Lucas is MP for Brighton Pavilion.