Feeling the climate emergency: what Covid has taught us about facing up to necessity

by Richard Walker

This post originally appeared on Policy Leeds

It’s a chilling moment” — Richard Walker, on secondment from the Department for Transport to the University of Leeds, speaks of his personal realisation of the scale and speed of change needed to keep to our Paris climate commitments. Here he reflects on what we can learn from Covid about treating an emergency as an emergency.

It’s a chilling moment when the full meaning of the UK’s remaining carbon budget to stay within our ‘Paris commitments’ hits home as a personal realisation. For me it was right at the outset of my two-year secondment from the Department for Transport to the DecarboN8 Network team at the Institute for Transport Studies, at a Local Government Association/DecarboN8 workshop in Leeds in March 2020 on local government’s role in decarbonising transport.

Our carbon budget is the fixed amount of carbon dioxide we can emit in the foreseeable future. When the penny drops on what it means, you realise that (to all intents and purposes) every litre of petrol or aviation fuel we burn in pursuit of whatever frivolous mini-break or unnecessary business trip we embark upon today, is one less litre of fossil fuel we can burn at any time in the next 100 – 200 years — in other words, not only all the fossil fuel we can ever burn for keeping ourselves warm, fed and safe during our own lifetimes, but also during the lifetimes of all our children, grandchildren and beyond.

Should we mess up by spending too much of our available budget too freely now, we risk triggering various increasingly more frightening global environmental tipping points, which could end up in a barely-habitable hothouse Earth. Such is the nature of system collapse that we enter this horror-world on a one-way ticket with no way back. And we enter it not at some far-off date, but potentially as early as the 2030s. 2021’s unprecedentedly crazy weather in Canada and elsewhere, beyond the worst expectations of climate scientists, shows that today’s benign climate system is fragile.

This means that we do not have time to wait for fossil fuel-based technologies to become obsolete before we reduce our emissions — albeit that technology transition must be accomplished as fast as possible — we have to do it now, in the 2020s.

It is worth pausing a moment to ponder the enormity of that. Our ‘Paris commitment’ means playing our part to give everyone a fighting chance of a habitable planet. Every dismissal of the implications of that commitment as ‘unrealistic’ because it’s bad for business, or won’t wash with the voters, is a part of dismissing the possibility of that fighting chance.

Nevertheless, at the LGA/DecarboN8 workshop in March 2020, DecarboN8 Director Professor Greg Marsden’s ask that we should consider how the North of England could reduce transport carbon emissions by 7–8% per year in 2020 and 2021 seemed like an impossible request. The necessary reductions in demand for fossil-fuel powered transport to achieve such a cut were unprecedented in any of our lifetimes. Everything I knew about orthodox transport policy was telling me achieving any cut at all in such a short period of time would be difficult. In the period 2009–2019 the UK managed to cut surface transport carbon emissions by a pathetic mere 1%, according to the Climate Change Committee.

One of the options people were asked to consider at that workshop was replacing business travel with teleconferencing. It was thought to be a promising idea, but compared to getting people on the bus or on their bikes, scarcely a priority.

Yet something else was happening in Leeds in early March 2020: the chilling grip of fear hitting home as coronavirus moved from being something happening on the telly to being an invisible unknown that was suddenly amongst us and might kill any of us. The concept of a lockdown to prevent the overwhelming of the hospitals moved from being barely thinkable to feeling necessary. When the lockdown announcement finally came, it was almost universally supported.

empty streets outside Leeds rail station, with barricades and a road sign that reads "stay home, protect the NHS, save lives"

In the period April-June 2020, UK transport carbon emissions fell by 44% compared to the same quarter in 2019. Lockdown was a huge economic shock, but on the upside, most office workers moved to working from home and communicating online remarkably smoothly (often within the space of a week), and the objective — preventing the NHS being overwhelmed — was largely met, saving many thousands of lives. Discoveries were also made about what government could do when it put its mind to it: street sleeping, which had shamed the country for years, was ended within a few weeks. Treat an emergency as an emergency, and what was thought the impossible becomes the possible.

According to the Climate Change Committee (CCC), UK greenhouse gas emissions (including the CCC’s estimate of the UK’s share of international aviation and shipping emissions), were equivalent to 499 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2019 (499 MTCO2e). In 2020 they fell by about 64 MT (13%) to about 435 MTCO2e. For the first time, this was driven by reduction in transport carbon emissions. Surface transport emissions fell by 21 MT (from 113 MT to 92 MT, -19%) and aviation emissions fell by 23 MT (from 40 MT to 16 MT, -60%).

These are astonishing figures: what was thought impossible come to life. The key learning point is not that lockdown is a blueprint for transport decarbonisation, but a more general one: that bold government action to save lives is capable of doing extraordinary things at surprising speed. As the CCC points out:

“emissions reductions in 2020 were largely due to pandemic-related restrictions, with little contribution from underlying structural progress”, and “lockdown is not a blueprint for decarbonisation… lockdowns had damaging economic and social consequences [whereas] Net Zero should bring improvements to quality of life: new jobs, cleaner air, quieter streets, more green spaces, comfortable homes and healthier lifestyles.”

Although no-one would wish to repeat the pandemic, it would be profoundly wrong to fail to ‘lock in’ some of the emissions-reducing changes to travel behaviour it engendered. At the very top of that list should be to use taxation to discourage a return to excessive frequent flying by the tiny proportion of the population who fly more than 2 or 3 times per year.

The CCC, in its measured language, argues that there are:

“three broad lessons from the pandemic: first, we have seen the critical importance of effective planning for high-impact eventualities; second, we have experienced the ability of government to act with pace and scale when it is required; and third, we have learned that people are willing to support change when they have the information before them.”

Put more crudely, the big lesson we can learn for transport decarbonisation from the Covid pandemic is: tell the truth, feel the fear, treat an emergency as an emergency — and what was thought the impossible becomes the possible.