Earth Day: is there Lockdown Learning to take Back to the Future?

22nd April 2020

Today is Earth Day, an annual event used to show support for environmental protection. Given the current situation, its aim this year is to flood the world with hope, optimism and action. We wanted to make a positive contribution and so our Chairman, Dominic Hogg, and climate emergency specialist, Alex Massie, decided to share their thoughts on the environmental benefits resulting from the current forced changes to our daily lives, some of which we may want to take back to the future with us.

Commuting less, polluting less

We’re not using the car so much, and the number of flights people are taking has fallen, so the quality of the air has improved, greenhouse gas emissions have declined, and there is less noise – you can hear birdsong more easily now. The reduction in traffic means residents can view the places where they live quite differently – you can look at building facades from the middle of the road rather than craning your neck to look up. People may also be realising that how far they travel isn’t as closely linked to their wellbeing as they previously thought.

Less noise and light, to nature ain’t plight

The reduction in noise and light pollution – not only from transport, but the reduction in night-time activity – could help nature to recover from the damage it’s suffered in the past, and because the skies are darker and the streets are quieter, people may sleep better.

This reduction in pollution is a significant environmental improvement for residents and nature in inner-city areas. Government restrictions mean people have limited options for their free time: some appear to have been keener to get out and enjoy green space (if they’re lucky enough to have some nearby) for their daily exercise. This shift in activity could potentially lead to long term health benefits.

Flexible working and taxing pollution could help us get back to a healthy solution

To maintain this urban environment with less pollution, government and businesses might want to do more to support flexible home working. It would seem sensible to also consider a nationwide charging scheme which discourages private cars from entering city centres. Such a scheme would be well aligned with the Government’s recently stated vision of shifting to active travel and public transport as far as possible. The decade long freeze on fuel duty now feels even more strange than it did in the Budget, when oil prices were already falling anyway. We could completely transform the urban realm if there were fewer cars on the streets – some roads might not be so necessary, and could allow for greater provision of green spaces where people can walk and cycle freely and safely in their community. Car ownership may fall over time as a result of the measures considered.

The Government could consider a frequent flyer levy or taxes on flights linked to the environmental impact of each flight undertaken, and this would encourage the aviation industry to seek more efficient planes and alternative sources of power. This sort of taxation is precisely the sort of thing the Chancellor should be considering if he does offer a bail-out to the industry.

The Government could also consider a tax on hard-standing, diminishing the incentive to pour concrete on land. Ensuring minimum access to green space would also help reduce stress and other non-communicable diseases (such as diabetes). At the very least, encouraging green front gardens could have a major impact on local amenity very quickly.

Reducing the noise gives us more to enjoy

The approach to dealing with noise pollution previously has been woeful. The rights structure regarding ‘who can do what’ ought to shift from ‘I can play whatever music I like when I like and as loud as I like’ to one where residents have the right to be undisturbed by noise from neighbours. The existing system, whereby even where residents are being tortured on a routine basis by neighbours’ noise, they are asked to keep a noise diary before action is taken is not acceptable. Will COVID-19 make us all more accepting of more intervention where it is for the public good?

Buying stuff we don’t need should no more be our creed

We’re buying less. Although many people may imagine that their environmental impact is linked to the energy they consume directly, in fact, it’s also influenced considerably by the energy they consume, indirectly, in what they buy. The environmental impact of consumption is embodied in what we purchase. Whist working and playing at home we might have cleared out spaces in our house, and things in cupboards that were previously unused, many may have sorted through old WEEE (Waste electrical and electronic equipment). Parents could be getting creative with everyday objects and forgotten toys, we may be reusing more, a key to use moving towards a circular economy.

We have, perhaps, also come to value food more than we did… and loo roll. Food waste is a significant contributor to climate change. We’re even buying simpler food. The basics have become very important, and supermarkets have simplified their offering to provide a more robust service. Usually, this results in fewer food miles, which means fewer greenhouse gas emissions. By savouring the seasonal and local more, we will have improved environmental outcomes and more robust supply chains.

We should reuse and share and tax those that don’t care

To keep this ‘waste not, want not’ attitude, we should consider taxes on the environmental impacts of a range of items, starting with packaging (not just plastics), clothing, electrical and electronic goods, tyres (they contribute to poor air quality), and disposable cups.

Once through COVID-19, the Government will have a massive hole to fill in the public finances. It should be looking to capitalise on some of the upsides of this terrible virus and make the case for taxing ‘environmental bads.’ This sort of environmental taxation would help shore up the public finances, while supporting a transition to a green economy where the urban realm retains elements that COVID-19 might be helping us to appreciate.

One thing that is clear, and most have noticed, is that the community cohesion that COVID-19 has triggered has been astonishing, with many people interacting with and caring for their neighbours more than before and reaching out to old friends and family on virtual platforms – this type of networking improves people’s lives and contributes to their quality of life. It can also result in environmental improvements as local groups share food that would otherwise go to waste, and may repurpose items such as furniture, toys and equipment that other members of the community need. This is also exactly the kind of collaborative effort and community cohesion that we need to address the current climate emergency.