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No, the coronavirus pandemic is NOT helping the environment

Rob Lyons
Rob Lyons

Rob Lyons is a UK journalist specialising in science, environmental and health issues. He is the author of 'Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder'.

Rob Lyons is a UK journalist specialising in science, environmental and health issues. He is the author of 'Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder'.

No, the coronavirus pandemic is NOT helping the environment
While the short-term benefits from the global Covid-19 lockdown may be valuable, the long-term effects will be disastrous.

Numerous commentators have extolled the positive effect that the global Covid-19 shutdown is having on the environment. Air quality has greatly improved in areas where there has been a 'lockdown', fish have returned to Venice’s canals, and satellite observations from the European Space Agency have revealed a drastic drop in pollution over Europe. As Graham Dockery has noted elsewhere on RT, this is an impact that Greta Thunberg and other environmentalists could only dream about.

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But don’t cheer too loudly: in the longer term, the kind of societal shutdown that we have seen in China and across Europe and America triggers a global recession that will be a disaster for the environment. Economic activity has slumped. Stock market values have plummeted. Many businesses are simply running out of cash and a significant proportion of them will collapse. In the UK, for example, well-known stores like Carphone Warehouse and Laura Ashley have already succumbed, as has a regional airline, Flybe. Those businesses were already in trouble, but stronger companies will soon be in trouble, too.

Governments are offering enormous sums in grants and loan guarantees to protect businesses and workers. When the dust has settled, and those bills must be paid, will there really be such an appetite — let alone the money — to pursue climate-change policies?

Greatly reducing greenhouse-gas emissions can be done in two ways. One is by restricting access to activities that produce emissions — like flying and driving — by increasing the cost or by rationing those activities, or even rationing emissions themselves. That could also involve rules and regulations to force us to switch to low-carbon alternatives, like banning the use of gas boilers. However, these measures will impose significant costs on households and businesses.

We can also push through technological change at a societal level. That might mean replacing much of our energy system with low-carbon alternatives. Renewables like wind and solar can only do so much because they are both intermittent (the sun doesn't shine at night) and unpredictable (wind and sunshine are variable). Such spread-out, dilute energy sources will need a major change in infrastructure, too.

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So we'll need nuclear power stations for now, which are expensive and proving complex to build. The European Pressurised Reactors (EPRs) being built in Finland and France are very late, way over budget and still haven't come online. We'll also need to spend much, much more on research and development of low-carbon technologies. The resources devoted to developing nuclear fusion, for example, are tiny compared to the sums devoted to other methods of reducing emissions. For example, the total budget for ITER, the major international collaboration on fusion, is just $20 billion, spread over six countries plus the EU and a timeframe of 20 years. We need to spend much more.

That's all expensive. One estimate for the UK, published in February, put the cost of 'net zero' carbon emissions as £3 trillion between now and 2050 — equivalent to £100,000 per household. That's a lot of money to devote, not to improving our lives, but simply to reduce the emissions we produce at our current standard of living. While that estimate has been criticized, it only covers housing and electricity generation. The overall cost could be much more.

We'll also need to find new building materials to replace cement, for example, which produces a surprisingly high amount of emissions in its production — accounting for about eight per cent of global emissions. If cement were a country, it would be the third-biggest emitter in the world.

So, increasing wealth is going to be vital to pay for the technologies and wider economic changes that we will need to reach 'net zero.' Having wealth allows us the freedom to care about the environment. Poor people devote their energies to survival, not to environmental concerns like climate change or conservation.

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Indeed, environmentalism has long been an elite obsession. Poorer countries are focused on trying to become richer economies, and care little about the costs of doing so. Traditionally, it has been wealthy Westerners who have obsessed about the environment. Left-wingers were often important critics of green ideas, realising that ordinary workers needed widespread economic growth to raise their living standards and escape poverty.

One leading British Labour politician of the Sixties and Seventies, Anthony Crosland, was dismissive of environmentalists: “Its champions are often kindly and dedicated people. But they are affluent and fundamentally, though of course not consciously, they want to kick the ladder down behind them… We must make our own value judgement based on socialist objectives: and that objective must… be that growth is vital, and its benefits far outweigh its costs.

So while greens may now be cheering our temporarily cleaner environments, the cause of tackling climate change will ultimately suffer, if Covid-19 does bring about the prolonged global recession many now believe to be likely. 

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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