The Importance of Climate Action as the Lockdown Lifts

Article By Naomi Milner

Artwork by Indira Falle

With the recent pandemic and global lockdown, the pressing climate situation has been somewhat put on the back burner; however, this critical issue still requires drastic action. We cannot ignore what is happening around us or the fact that the current and devastating situation will soon become significantly worse unless immediate action is taken. Climate change, and the consequent poor air quality which accompanies it, arguably poses a greater threat to people’s health and to the economy than COVID-19, therefore it is fundamental that similar urgency is applied to climate action.

If there’s one thing we can take from this unprecedented series of events, it is that society can pull together to address a global challenge. This is something that should be taken forward in order to face the damage that we have caused our planet and to improve the situation before it’s too late. It is estimated that if governments don’t initiate a transition to clean energy sources by 2035, then we’ll have passed the point of no return (Loria, 2018). Furthermore, if no action is taken, we can expect more diseases like COVID-19 to appear, especially since research shows that there is a definite link between climate and infectious disease occurrence (WHO, 2003).  

There is a plethora of other health issues that can occur as a result of pollution and climate change - predominantly an increased risk of respiratory issues due to inflammation of the lining of the lungs, resulting in decreased immunity to lung infections (Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, 2005). There are also possible links between pollution and dementia, diabetes, weight gain in babies and lung development in children (Messenger, 2020). 

Another devastating impact of climate change is higher temperatures and drier surface conditions which provide ideal conditions for intense wildfires, particularly in the Arctic. The Arctic is warming at a rate at least 2.5 times faster than the global average, which has led to wildfires of record breaking intensity. This has meant that, in June of this year alone, a staggering 59 million metric tons of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere, which is more than has been released in any other fire in 18 years of monitoring. Not only is it likely that more Arctic permafrost will thaw, due to these fires and general warming of the planet, but also the decomposition of organic matter will lead to the release of more methane, which is another potent greenhouse gas. According to numerous studies, the persistent warming of the Arctic is likely to be influencing extreme weather events around the world, which will only increase in frequency if nothing is done to prevent this (Sengupta, 2020).  

Additionally, unless sufficient action is taken, the Earth’s biodiversity will plummet. According to a new study, if we continue along our current trajectory, polar bears will be wiped out by the end of the century. This is due to the Arctic ice breaking up, with a shocking rate of 13% of the sea ice being lost every decade since the 1970s. This has left some polar bear populations at the very brink of their survival, due to the fact that they rely on the sea ice to hunt for seals and, without this, they are unable to find sufficient food for themselves or their cubs (Briggs and Gill, 2020). Polar bears are far from being the only species that is endangered and set to face extinction. Deforestation and hunting activities mean that one third of the lemur species is now facing extinction (Gill, 2020). There are countless other species threatened by climate change, including: bumblebees, whales, Asian elephants, giraffes, sharks, great apes and many more (Gooljar, 2019).    

However, we are not without hope. Lockdown has demonstrated our ability to pull together and overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. But, perhaps more importantly, reduced traffic on our roads has curtailed pollution levels. This has had some less obvious secondary effects. By examining the pollutant levels recorded on the Defra website, we can see that there have been significant reductions in pollutants known to be released in vehicle fumes, in particular nitrogen dioxide (Defra, 2020). Nitrogen dioxide forms part of photochemical smog which can lead to serious health problems, including a reduced immunity to lung infections. It also impacts animals, plant life and biodiversity by contributing to the acidification and eutrophication of soil and watercourses (Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, 2005). This reduction is encouraging as it brings hope that it is not too late for us to take action to reduce the pollution levels in the atmosphere, which is impacting our health directly as well as contributing to the unnecessary release of green house gases and consequently, climate change. However, in order to continue this pollutant reduction, we must emerge from lockdown with a plan of action. There are already some plans put in place, including: an increase in car tax, an increase in home-heating tax, more planting of trees and making it easier for people to walk or cycle, rather than using cars or public transport (Harrabin, 2020).Following the increase in people working from home during lockdown, there are also plans to improve broadband, with the goal of reducing the number of cars on the road, and thus the level of pollutants released into the atmosphere (Harrabin, 2020).

Confinement has also caused a reduction in human-linked vibrations, which is a phenomenon known as an “anthropause”. It proceeded as a wave from China in January, and then swept across the rest of the world in the following months, and the baseline produced is hoped to give geologists the ability to differentiate between human noise in seismic recordings and signals that may warn of impending earthquakes. These early warnings could save countless lives in the future (Lockdown lull: Earth’s vibrations, 2020).  

More research is going into clean industries and strengthening networks to support electrification of transport and heating (Harrabin, 2020) as well as homes in a new garden village in County Durham soon being heated by water from a disused mine; this has great potential because around a quarter of Britain’s homes sit on coalfields and heat for homes, business and industry is the largest contributor to UK emissions (almost 40% of CO2 in Britain) (Harrabin, 2020). Additionally, open mines such as Nant Helen are facing closure as a consequence of electricity demands plummeting during the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in the National Grid taking power plants off the network. This could lead to the end of the use of coal to generate electricity, given that it is already being replaced by renewables such as solar power, wind and even compressed wood pellets (Rowlatt, 2020). 

Whilst these plans are encouraging, there are numerous goals being missed. The greenhouse gas target for Scotland (which was to reduce source emissions by 54%) (Keane, 2020), the Buckinghamshire councillors rejecting the proposal to become carbon-neutral by 2030 instead of the formerly agreed date of 2050 (Council rejects 2030 carbon-neutral target, 2020) and Wales only planting 4% of the planned number of trees for 2019 (‘Disappointing’ tree planting as Wales lags behind, 2020). 

We cannot continue to avert our gaze whilst countless numbers of people are dying and our planet is falling to pieces. This lockdown has shown us all that we can pull together and create change, so we must use this moving forward. Small changes can add up to make a big difference, such as: turning the tap off while you brush your teeth; showering instead of taking baths; buying locally produced organic food; eating less meat; turning lights off when you’re not in the room; not buying fast fashion, thinking before you print and if you do have to print, printing double-sided (Climate Care, 2020). Everyone can do something, no matter how small, to fight for a better tomorrow. As Greta Thunberg says, “You must take action. You must do the impossible. Because giving up can never ever be an option” (Thunberg, 2019). 

Websites For More Ideas on How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint:

Educational Resources and Further Reading

  • The ‘Science and Environment’ section of the BBC news app
  • Panorama: Climate Change: What Can We Do? – BBC iPlayer
  • Climate Change – The Facts – BBC iPlayer




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