Introduction

This paper builds on earlier discussions in the Assembly and explores issues around the impact of the pandemic on the environment. It covers the short –term positive environmental impacts, whether public attitudes towards the environment have changed and the outlook for action on climate change.

Environmental impacts of COVID

The pandemic gave rise to quite dramatic short-term environmental benefits as lockdown led to unprecedented reductions in journeys and industrial activities. NASA maps of north-eastern China, for example, show a colossal drop in nitrogen dioxide rates in areas in which factories were closed and the skies above Heathrow and Gatwick were strangely quiet as flight tracking facilities recorded a 90% drop in activity and just 711 departures from the UK's 10 biggest airports in mid-April. As demand for electricity plummeted the National Grid took power plants off the network and Britain went without coal-fired power generation for the longest stretch since the Industrial Revolution. During the period there has also been much reflection on how nature has crept in to fill the spaces previously taken by people and cars.

However, the immediate drop in pollution from lockdown is unlikely to be maintained or to meaningfully mitigate climate change. In National Geographic, Beth Gardiner goes further and argues that even though the air has been cleaner as a result of the global lockdowns, a more polluted future has been brewing while we weren’t looking. She says some experts now fear we face a future with more traffic, pollution and climate change that worsens faster than ever. Some commentators discuss the potential links between habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity and increased risk of future pandemics. There is widespread concern that public attention and critical resources will be diverted from addressing the climate crisis to dealing with the coronavirus outbreak over the longer term.

Changes in public attitudes and behaviours

During lockdown we saw how in response to a crisis habits and lifestyles can quickly change and what governments can achieve on a huge scale. Peoples’ behaviours and attitudes towards the environment also seem to be changing. For example, polling in April indicated that 66% of the UK public believe that climate change is as serious as COVID-19 in the long term and 58% support a green recovery that prioritises climate change and in Scotland around 80% of people say they will make an effort to re-use products more often and purchase more environmentally friendly products as a result of COVID-19. There may therefore be some substance to the claim that the trauma of the pandemic could force society to accept that we have to limit mass consumer culture and the negative effects of this in order to protect ourselves from future viruses and climate disasters.

However, it is far from certain that people will hold onto these pro-environmental attitudes over the longer term and whether businesses and consumers will be prepared to make the changes needed, including accepting new behaviours and giving up established ways of life that they have come to see as a right.  

The response from governments

Governments across the world, including the Scottish Government, have highlighted how a green, just and resilient recovery is essential. In Scotland the Parliament is working on establishing the principles, actions, priorities and arrangements that should underpin a green recovery. In early August they also put out a call for views on a green recovery to help inform this work. The EU has set out an ambitious 750 billion green recovery plan which places tackling the climate emergency at the centre of the recovery. This package is equivalent to about £1800 per head in Europe, a similar level of funding in Scotland would amount to a total of nearly £10 billion.

An initiative in Sweden focuses on providing roles in nature and forest conservation for those unemployed as a result of the pandemic. Austria, Finland and Canada have made their support for businesses dependent on upholding environmental responsibilities, and France has set up a commission to consider climate as part of their three key pillars of economic recovery. Other actions include green export initiatives, green recovery and restructuring of the economy in Norway and a shifting away from fossil fuel reliance and subsidy.

Much thought is being given around the world to how we can prevent the encroachment of cars back onto our streets. For example, Milan has embarked on an ambitious cycling and walking scheme involving the transformation of 22 miles of streets over the summer and the Mayor of Paris, allocated €300 million to a network of cycle lanes. In Bogotá a 75-mile network of streets will become traffic-free all week (previously it was one day a week) and a further 47 miles of bike lanes are being opened. In their response to the Scottish Parliament call for views, CoMoUK suggest local authorities should create ‘low car neighbourhoods’ and GPs should consider ‘prescription cycling’ for bike-sharing schemes.

Ideas for change

Green campaigners have been busy drawing together the case for using the pandemic as an opportunity to reset the economy along more sustainable lines. Some see this as a choice between a ‘dirty’ recovery which shores up the economy by supporting old, polluting industries or a green stimulus which uses recovery funds to create new jobs in sectors such as clean power and energy efficiency. We do not yet know what a green pathway to recovery might look like, however, the experience and insights we have gained through the crisis is putting governments and central banks under pressure to make their economic bailouts dependent on climate action in the longer term.

As part of this discussion Friends of the Earth Scotland, along with 82 other organisations wrote to the First Minister calling for a green recovery and a wellbeing economy. They propose a bold agenda for change built around increasing public ownership of public services, creating zero-carbon social housing, providing adequate incomes for all including paying a minimum of the real Living Wage for public sector workers, putting fundamental human rights into Scot’s law and creating a just transition away from fossil fuels. Common Weal have produced Our common home, a green new deal for Scotland which the authors say would change Scotland as fundamentally as when the Victorians built sewers and railways, or when the post-war generation built the welfare state. The Institute of Public Policy Research Environmental Justice Commission interim report sets out a proposed path to a better future where people and nature can thrive, which is centred on good jobs and meaningful work, low carbon businesses, and where inequalities are reduced and opportunities are offered to all. Fraser of Allander published a report which encourages people to think about how we design and build a future that is sustainable, concluding that there are some immensely difficult choices that will have to be made in the aftermath of this global crisis.

The role of citizens’ assemblies

Concern for the environment has been a strong thread throughout Assembly member deliberations, particularly in relation to the Assembly’s over-arching sustainability statement. These concerns are shared by other citizens’ assemblies. In the UK Climate Assembly 79% of members either agreed or strongly agreed that, “steps taken by the government to help the economy recover should be designed to help achieve net zero”.  The French citizens’ assembly (Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat) has gone even further and recommended that damaging the environment (ecocide) should become a crime in France. The Climate Citizens’ Assembly in Scotland will consider a wide range of environmental issues when it convenes later in the year.

Conclusions

In earlier discussions Assembly members identified a wide range of potential areas for action on the environment as part of wider thinking about building a sustainable country. These include ideas like building an energy efficient country, investing in our renewable energy potential, better educating and informing citizens on environmental issues and using tax powers to incentivise positive and penalise negative behaviours. As the Assembly comes back together members will want to reflect again on these earlier ideas and consider the impact of COVID-19 on the environment as they prepare their final conclusions.