Image sourced from FT online
It seems that the natural environment is temporarily ‘healing’ while we are on ‘lockdown’. We’re seeing pictures of swans enjoying the clearing waters of Venice in the absence of gondolas and swarming tourists. The global ‘brake’ has meant dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, in turn has meant improvements in air quality. In short, pandemic induced slowing in economic activity has led to unintended environmental benefits.
The Corona-Climate has also highlighted the dependency of human wellbeing on environmental sustainability. Aaron Bernstein from the Harvard School of Public Health tells The Guardian: “The separation of health and environmental policy is a dangerous delusion. Our health entirely depends on the climate and the other organisms we share the planet with.”
Professor Francois Gemenne, lead author for the IPCC suggests that the occurrence of Covid-19 can be traced back to the erosion of wildlife habitat and the consequential migration of wild animals into human territories. Increasing proximity due to climate migration also makes it easier for pathogens to move from animal to human hosts. Environmental Lawyer, Meena Raman adds that consumption of animals, globalisation and air travel are direct causes of the spread of this Zoonotic disease. They also happen to be (amongst other) direct causes of climate change.
What can we learn from the Corona-Climate?
The Corona-Climate is a huge unintended experiment that has shown us that a change in the way we think, live, and work can help to heal the planet.
Arunabha Ghosh, founder of CEEW suggests that we need to review our patterns of production and consumption to minimise social, political and economic strain. He says that we should view the Climate Emergency through a similar ‘risk lens’ that we use for to Covid-19. Whilst the impacts of climate change may not appear to be as imminent and drastic as Covid-19, low probability occurrences will have catastrophic impacts such as: future pandemics, extreme weather events, crop losses and water stress. Gosh says we need to ask ourselves ‘what do we want to avoid?’ and change our behaviours and responses accordingly.
We need to act now to prevent further irreversible damage to the planet because unlike Covid-19 there will be no cure for the effects of climate change. “There is no vaccine against the effects of the climate emergency”- Gemenne
What should we be considering during the recovery phase?
The Corona-Climate has demonstrated that an annual global economic break might offer temporary respite to the natural environment, but that alone won't be enough because as we know ‘crash diets don’t work’! A paradigm shift from consumerism towards triple bottom line sustainability is vital. ‘We can’t let this crisis go to waste’ - Gosh.
Whilst COP26 has been postponed and nations focus on their own economic recovery, Meena Raman states that “we ought not to be considering a return to ‘Business as Usual’”. Instead, we need to be moving towards eco-friendly economies, with a focus on implementing sustainable production, consumption and renewable energy in a post-pandemic world.
Gosh proposes that debt from reduced interest rates resulting from the relaxation of monetary policy be invested in climate-friendly infrastructure, and fiscal stimuli be deployed to eco-friendly businesses. Businesses need to believe that a shift towards low-carbon sustainable economies will be in their interest in the long term. In September 2019 the World Bank suggested that spending $1.8 trillion over a decade on climate-friendly measures would generate $7.1 trillion in economic benefits. The Economist Intelligence Unit found that, if global emissions were not cut, the economic cost could be as much as $7.9 trillion each year by the middle of the century.
There is no doubt that stronger Political will is required to respond to the climate emergency. This may require electorates to put pressure on leaders to act now. At an individual level we can be remodelling our own patterns of production and consumption. Households have been rationing food and eating more homecooked meals. Families with furloughed breadwinners are questioning whether they need that expensive watch. We could carry these practices forward to the post-pandemic world.
As an architect, I would urge colleagues and clients to think more carefully about prioritising passive bioclimatic design. Energy efficiency and reduction of carbon emissions are resultants of comfort, in the building sector. If we’re comfortable, we’re less likely to worry about active space conditioning. So let's use solar gain and thermal mass to heat buildings, correctly. Let's exploit windspeeds and directions to promote natural ventilation pathways to cool buildings. Let's enhance exposure to daylight and to improve visual comfort and a sense of wellbeing. Environmental design needs to be site and building specific; blanket applications of energy standards don't always work.
Rekindling a healthy connection to nature can reduce stress and improve mental and physical wellbeing. So, let's select natural low-carbon materials, consider views and access to nature and employ biophilic design to improve wellbeing. Let's actively promote ecological preservation and biodiversity enhancement within our sites.
Corona-Climate has demonstrated that if we reconsider and revalue our relationship with nature at every level, we have a chance of rescuing the natural environment and shielding our own wellbeing.