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Has lockdown actually had a positive impact on the environment?

·4-min read
 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK last year, life as we knew it ground to a halt.

On 23 March 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the first national lockdown and issued a stay at home order, effectively imposing a ban on leaving your home other than for emergencies, shopping for necessities or exercise.

For many, it meant driving less and walking more, as daily constitutionals became a key component of people’s lockdown routines.

International travel also plummeted and there were notably fewer planes in the sky. International passenger traffic at UK airports in April fell to around 1.9 per cent of levels seen in February.

But what effect did those changes have and will it last long-term?

What was the effect on the environment?

Scientific research looking at how carbon dioxide levels changed during the pandemic found that globally, in 2020, emissions fell by approximately 2.6bn tonnes - around 7 per cent.

While greenhouse gas emissions were falling slowly prior to the pandemic, “disruptions from the Covid-19 pandemic have radically altered the trajectory of global CO2 emissions,” the researchers wrote.

Peter Newell, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, told The Independent: “Our research at the Rapid Transition Alliance has shown that reductions of emissions from avoiding unnecessary travel have been among the most significant during lockdown.”

Newell explained that the reduction of CO2 emissions was mostly caused by reductions in travel on the roads and by air.

He said: “[Emissions] from surface transport, such as car journeys, fell by approximately half at the peak of the Covid lockdowns.

“By December 2020, emissions from road transport and aviation were still below their 2019 levels, by approximately 10 per cent and 40 per cent, respectively.”

The grounding of flights at the peak of the pandemic saw a 60 per cent reduction of CO2 emissions usually caused by air travel, according to Norwegian researchers at the Global Carbon Project.

Will it last?

In order for any of the positive effects to last beyond the coronavirus pandemic, experts say it will take government action to encourage the public to alter their activity in the long term.

Benjamin Sovacool, Professor of Energy Policy in the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School, explained to The Independent that government responses around the world will determine whether these emissions reductions continue in the long-run.

Sovacool said: “Exactly how long and to what extent we will continue to see energy demand, CO2 and related greenhouse gas emission reduction resulting from Covid-19 is uncertain but dependent on global policy responses to the pandemic.

“Policy responses targeting the transportation sector, particularly ground-based transportation, can stimulate a sustainable mobility transition that mitigates the potential for long-term environmental damage.”

Professor Sovacool believes that now is an ideal time for governments to push for green initiatives, such as discouraging the use of cars and encouraging more people to return to public transport and other green alternatives.

He explained: “The Covid pandemic has seen an enormous shift away from the use of public transport. Such a shift needs to be reversed.

“London, New York, Paris and Tokyo each leverage metro and bus transportation to accommodate 5 to 10 million daily trips and so no amount of work from home, walking and cycling can realistically replace public transportation in these cities.”

Newell said that we all need to take some of the positive things that have come out of lockdown and continue them in the future.

Behaviours like an increase in walking and cycling, which we witnessed during the pandemic, should be pursued even as lockdowns lift, he argues.

Newell said: “Further support to the uptake in walking and cycling through car-free cities, pedestrianisation, better cycle lines and dropping plans to further expand airports can provide clean air, reduce emissions, boost time with loved ones and save time and money.”

In April, France took the step of approving a ban on short-haul domestic flights where passengers can take the train instead. French lawmakers passed the measure to scrap routes where the same journey can be completed by rail in under two and a half hours

The action is part of a wider climate bill aimed at cutting France’s emissions by 40 per cent of 1990 levels by 2030.

Newell continued: “Policies to promote health and sustainability can include support to home working, improved capacity for moving conferences and events online to avoid unnecessary travel and phasing out domestic flights as France has done.”

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