New cycle lane in Milan as city starts to reopen after coronavirus lockdown

‘You can’t self-isolate from climate crisis’

Environmental campaigner urges positive, clean rebuilding of societies after pandemic.
28 May 2020 , Katie Coyne

Climate change will wreak more devastation than COVID-19 unless we take decisive action yet the pandemic has proven that we can take dramatic action, say environmentalists.

EHN Extra spoke to Siån Sutherland, co-founder of environmental campaign A Plastic Planet, who said: “You can't self-isolate from climate crisis.”

She added: “If you had said nine weeks ago ‘by the way we are going to put half the world's population into lockdown for eight weeks’ we'd have ‘all said righty-o, you're bonkers, that's absolutely not possible’. And look what's happened.”

Sutherland added: “So I think we've proven to ourselves exactly that extraordinary seismic, dramatic change is possible and where there is change there is opportunity.

“I do think it's very interesting to see that we have proven, and governments can witness, we can make extraordinary change happen very fast. [Such as] when I hear Milan saying: ‘We are pedestrianising 35 kilometres and [adding new] cycle lanes in our city. And we used to call this plan 2030 and now we call it plan 2020.’

“We all feel as if we've been in this kind of stasis, that we've been treading water for weeks. But actually a tremendous amount of acceleration has happened. And much of it in a very positive way.”

Sutherland is optimistic that we have learned about the connectedness of our different systems – environmental, societal, and economic – through this crisis. It might also be the case that the pandemic brings the climate change risk and loss more tangible to richer countries.

“That's been a big realisation for everyone, just realising the fragility of all of these systems. One little rogue protein has run amok and showed us that we are not in control, in the way that we thought we were this omni-powerful force in the world.

“That we could just take whatever we wanted and do what we do and pollute as we do with no consequence. And I think it's been an awakening for all of us that actually we need the planet much more than the planet needs us.”

“These kind of crisis situations happen to other people”, said Sutherland, “perhaps to some of the less prosperous nations. And they have to suffer the impact, particularly with climate crisis. They are the ones that will suffer the impact much more than the rich west.

“What's been very interesting is that the rich west are taking a huge brunt of the impact of COVID19 economically and in every way. That's big learning for us.”

Already we have seen improvements in air quality, with Nature Climate Change journal finding global carbon emissions down by 26%, and on our streets harmful N02 emissions are also down in some places by more than 50%.

Appetite for change is also strong in the UK. A Royal Society of Arts survey found that the majority of people want to keep some of the changes that have occurred during lockdown – better air quality, increase in wildlife, improved social connections. Just 9% want the world to return to exactly how it was pre-lockdown.

Sutherland argued that when we rebuild post-pandemic we need to do so with the planet in mind. “I heard someone the other day say ‘we're going to lose 30% of our economy, let's make sure it's the dirty third’.

“I love that thinking. We have an opportunity to rebuild, and I look at people like the community of Amsterdam rebuilding their economy based on doughnut economics [an economic model on how to live in balance with the planet devised by British economist Kate Raworth from Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute].”

But change has to be meaningful, Sutherland argued: “Certainly with plastic recycling, it's an absolute sticking plaster. It's the guilt appeaser. It simply enables us to continue with the status quo. It's not the answer. And I think what we're learning through this is no more sticking plasters.”

The pandemic has also shown us the value in professions we've not properly valued before including EH, Sutherland argued, as well as highlighting gross social inequalities. She asked: “How useful really are our jobs? If we're not considered key workers – that's quite challenging for [some] people. We think that our jobs really define us and make us so important.”

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