Social distancing accidentally did the hard part for the climate crisis – now it’s up to us to keep going

Georgina Lawton
Getty

Social distancing is totally at odds with human behaviour and the construction of global capitalism. Our entire world is on pause, and yet there are still not enough TV series and podcasts in existence to entertain us. We are working in our bedrooms and doing far too much living in our living rooms but still, boredom is woven into the fabric of our being.

Those of us who once had normal jobs miss the mindless patter of work colleagues at lunch. Those of us who work from home anyway are already bored of the hourly Whatsapp updates from this latest batch of home-workers. All of us are worried about our mental health, the NHS, and the impact quarantining will have on our intimate relationships.

But one unexpected benefit to this otherwise phantasmagorical series of global events is the positive impact global self-isolation and social distancing is having on the environment. Economic activity and global pollution are directly correlated, and so, this period of human hibernation is protecting not only our health, but the health of our planet. For now.

Restricting the movement of people in the UK is necessary to halt the spread of this virus, and we’ve got a long road ahead of us. But as our streets go ghostly-quiet and human activity moves indoors, greenhouse emissions will also drop significantly, as they have done around the world. In China, recent measures to control coronavirus have heralded a reduction in industrial output across many sectors: coal consumption at power plants dropped by 36 per cent, satellites have shown that nitrogen oxide levels were 37 per cent lower than this time last year, and emissions overall are down by a quarter.

Italy, which is battling the world’s second-biggest coronavirus outbreak, saw nitrogen oxide levels in Milan and other parts of the north, fall by about 40 per cent. The country went into lockdown on 9 March. Since then the waters of Venice (usually congested with boats and canals), clear and fish-filled, have emerged. Meanwhile, researchers at Columbia University told the BBC that traffic levels in New York City, which went into total lockdown on March 23, were already around 35 per cent lower than in 2019, with emissions of carbon monoxide down by around 50 per cent. Oil production has also slowed to a trickle in the Middle-East; travel-bans and work from home policies have all disrupted supply chains and resulted in reduced demand for fuel around the world.

Millions of us have been forced into lockdown in the UK, and the very fabric of our society has shifted as a result. We have more time than ever to pause and reflect about our own futures, and the role each of us might play in protecting the planet when this is all over. An increased amount of time indoors will push up energy bills and limit movement, and so, somewhat perversely, there’s never been a better time to reassess our individual impact.

Small changes, like switching to eco-friendly kettles that keep your water hotter for longer and LED light bulbs, can make a big difference: studies show boiling double the water you need each time you fancy a coffee produces 71g of CO2 emissions. And there’s an upside to all our cancelled holidays: Dr Kimberly Nicholas, from the Lund University Center for Sustainability Studies in Sweden, told the New York Times that it takes eight years of recycling to counter the greenhouse gas emissions produced from a round-trip flight from London to New York. That’s also all the more reason to take recycling seriously when stuck inside – you can research your local council requirements and dispose of the increased household waste responsibly.

Previous research has suggested that watching Netflix is one of our least-green indoor habits; an often-repeated online claim is that “the emissions generated by watching 30 minutes of Netflix [1.6 kg of CO2] is the same as driving almost 4 miles”. But thankfully, a recent paper suggested the figure is actually 30-60 times lower and that we can reduce our environmental footprint by watching shows on our laptops instead of TV, and connecting through WiFi as opposed to mobile networks. Switching your streaming from a PS4 or Xbox One to Apple TV, Google Chromecast or Amazon Fire TV will also save 30 to 45 times more power.

We’re more conscious than ever about tracking human activity to save lives and contain the spread of coronavirus. If the only benefit to this mess is that our greenhouse emissions are lowered and it makes us think more responsibly about the environmental consequences of our actions, then I guess we will have to roll with it. Whether or not these changes stick depends on what we each learn from our time in isolation.

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