Will a “new normal” after Covid-19 offer fresh hope for the climate crisis?

For 20 years, climate scientist Dave Reay has had a dream for the world to achieve net zero emissions. Now, he tells us why lessons learnt during this global crisis might help us, as nations, communities and individuals, move closer to that goal.

deserted royal mile covid019
Saturday afternoons are looking noticeably different on Edinburgh's Royal Mile. But could this new way of living also help the long-term goal to cut carbon emissions?

“Covid-19 doesn’t respect borders. It doesn’t discriminate. It is exposing the weaknesses in our global food and health systems, and in how we collaborate as countries. It’s also showing us the way to a future where we’re more resilient, and better at working together internationally - valuable lessons we need to learn to address the global climate emergency. Whether we are addressing the pandemic or climate change, if we go down an isolationist route, the impacts are much worse for everyone.

“The social distancing we’re being asked to practise has parallels with the behaviour we need to change if we are serious about hitting our net zero emissions targets. We’re doing it for other people. It’s a very altruistic act. For climate change we need to think about how the way we live now can have an impact on the quality of life for future generations. It’s been encouraging to see people listening to and acting upon evidence-based advice.

“A thin silver lining to this awful pandemic is the effect these strict conditions we’re experiencing for Covid-19 are having upon emissions and air quality. We’re seeing air quality improve all over the world.

“By staying indoors our transport emissions have reduced significantly. From the beginning to the end of March, the amount of traffic on UK roads more than halved and emissions were about 30% down. That means about 3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide weren’t emitted into the atmosphere; it’s the equivalent of taking about a million cars off the road for a year. So, we’re understanding the impact some sectors, like transport, have in terms of emissions, and through the measures we’re taking to address the virus outbreak, we’re seeing how quickly emissions could be cut.

Dave Reay
Dave Reay

“Although I’m desperate to get back to some face-to-face meetings, this experience is teaching me that I can do more virtually. I can have more meetings online, I can spend more time with my family, I can commute less. Once we get through Covid-19, many of us will have learnt about the tools we can use for online working and understood more about the benefits. What we thought of as normal before this pandemic was presenteeism for work or attending international meetings but now the door is open for us to work in a different way.

“This new norm for working could not only improve our wellbeing but also help us reduce emissions and help us on that transition to net zero emissions, which is where we have to be globally by the middle of the century.

“In the bleak moments, for me COP26 (The United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow) is the port in the storm. It’s been delayed due to the pandemic but that additional time could make all the difference. It is so important for Scotland, for the UK, but also for the whole world in terms of limiting climate change and delivering on the Paris Climate Goals. We can’t afford it to be a failure and so having the extra time, whether it’s six months or a year, means we really have no excuse for it not to be a success. I’m still really optimistic, probably more optimistic about COP26 in 2021 than I was for this year, just because of the time we’ve now got to make sure it really does hit the spot.

“We’re dealing with a terrifying pandemic but the climate crisis hasn’t gone away. Global temperatures will keep on increasing. The seas will keep on rising. Weather events will get more severe. The impacts of these upon natural ecosystems and human populations pose a huge threat long term so, as we battle Covid-19 today, we can’t afford to lose the war on climate change tomorrow.

Dave Reay was the University of Edinburgh’s first lecturer in carbon management and now holds the Chair in Carbon Management and Education. He is the Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation and Policy Director for Climate Xchange, an independent centre of expertise advising the Scottish Government on climate policy. Dave writes regularly for the media and for academia.

See more from Dave Reay

How I stave off despair as a climate scientist

Climate-smart food (Our Changing World lecture, 2018)

Wonder Stuff – Nitrogen, the Environment and Us (TedX, 2017)