Our comment: Can we learn from coronavirus to benefit sustainability?

SWM, like many of you, are trying to manage the crisis associated with the coronavirus whilst also maintaining our focus on sustainability. This has got us pondering as to whether there are any lessons we can take going forwards to help drive sustainable behaviour in the long term.

There is no doubt that the negative implications of the crisis are colossal. The loss of lives and social disruption, and the impact on the economy and peoples livelihoods  is almost overwhelming. Fighting the pandemic may take focus and resources away from the climate emergency and could move it down the governments agenda. Whilst our wildlife might benefit from a respite from human activity, if we’re unable to maintain our nature reserves and undertake essential auditing, their quality and biodiversity might decline. I can already see the challenges faced in this respect through my role as Trustee for the Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country.

Birmingham was due to implement its Clean Air Zone (CAZ) in July but the council has asked the government permission for to postpone it until “at least” the end of the year amid the coronavirus crisis. Councillor Waseem Zaffar said “Businesses are focused on trying to support their employees through an extraordinary situation rather than upgrade their vehicle fleets. Low income workers and residents are focused on ensuring they and their families stay safe rather than applying for exemptions or financial incentive.”

However, there are some positive implications to be noted.  With the enforced slow down of industrial activity, travel and transportation and one-quarter of the world’s population now in some sort of isolation, air pollution levels around the world have decreased massively. Data from the European Space Agency and NASA  shows that, over the past six weeks, levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over some cities in Asia and Europe  were about 50% lower than this time last year. Monitoring in Birmingham has shown that in some areas, NO2 levels are down by 20% in comparison to last year. In Italy the canals of Venice, which are normally murky with mud and debris as a result of boat traffic, have become clear enough to see the return of fish swimming freely.

As many of us work from home online conferencing has increased, with many solutions now being offered for free, and we will all become more comfortable with this way of working. Many people have taken to two wheels to minimise the use of public transport, and for their daily exercise. The Active Wellbeing Society are loaning their fleet of bikes to people working on frontline emergency services and whose work is critical to the Covid-19 situation in Birmingham. If even a small proportion of our workforce commuted less or cycled to work once the crisis is over, we could see longer term decreases in air pollution, and a better work-life balance for some.

Many communities are coming together to provide support for the vulnerable in their neighbourhoods and as a result improving their communications. Community resilience will be critical in our response to the climate emergency, reducing the impact of flooding and heatwaves. The tools that we develop and use now can be maintained going forwards, and the spirit of caring for those in need must not be forgotten.

Once the crisis is over, we must build on the values that have helped us through this period and celebrate the positives. We mustn’t go back to business as usual but must question how we can use the experience for the better by using the tools and resilience we have developed for the good of our environment, our economy, and ourselves.

Anna Bright, Chief Executive, SWM