We can't just cycle our way to a greener world
In the aftermath of Covid-19 global political leadership is sorely needed to address climate change
My local bike shop reopened this week and I dropped in to pick up a spare part. The shop is always busy but it seemed unusually frantic, full of bikes, but only three or four for sale. The rest were in for repairs. “No new bikes?” I asked the owner. He shrugged. “Can’t get them. Suppliers are quoting end of August, even September for deliveries.” Many of the repair bikes looked as if they had recently been rescued from the back of someone’s garage or cellar. “Coronavirus bonus,” the shop owner explained, saying that the sudden interest in cycling came from so many people becoming reluctant to use buses and trains while the pandemic lasts.
The popularity of cycling suggests Covid-19 could have an even wider benefit for action on climate change, according to Petteri Taalas, the head of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). In an interview with New Scientist magazine, Mr Taalas found reasons to be cheerful. “The Covid-19 crisis will change the world,” he said. “It’s going to have impacts on the mentality of people and governments… this is the mentality that would be needed in solving the climate problem.”
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A new way of thinking about climate change is desperately needed. The WMO’s most recent report says that in the past 20 years we have seen the 19 warmest years on record. The world has broken all records for greenhouse gas emissions, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. The WMO is most concerned about carbon dioxide, which Mr Taalas says “has contributed two thirds of the warming so far and its life in the atmosphere is several hundred years.” Climate change is not only melting glaciers and raising sea-levels. Crop failures due to lack of fresh water mean around 800 million people are going hungry and 30,000 a day are dying of malnutrition.
Mr Taalas may be right that what we need is not more studies but a change in the way we think and act. It is happening already, not just in my local bicycle shop but across boardrooms of multinational corporations.
Bernard Looney, the chief executive of BP, one of the world’s biggest oil companies, has forecast that lower oil prices could be with us for decades. BP has cut price forecasts by about 30 per cent, with the expectation that Brent crude will average $55 a barrel from now until 2050. Airlines and aircraft manufacturers, car makers, dealers and car drivers are having to think differently about what the future may look like.
Like coronavirus itself, no country can tackle climate change alone
As a result of lockdown I have gone from filling my car’s petrol tank at least once a week to filling it just twice in the past three months. But let’s not get too carried away. Changing accounting practices and writing down asset values is the easy part. Will we really no longer want to fly for an exotic holiday? Will we really want to cycle to work in all weathers for years to come?
Mr Taalas notes that the drop in carbon emissions as a result of coronavirus will not have a rapid and significant impact on climate change because so much damage has already been done, and carbon dioxide is so persistent in the atmosphere. But if he is correct about our change in mindset and behaviour, then corporations and consumers will accelerate the green conversion of systems for energy, transport and industry.
Companies like BP and Shell have set a target to become carbon neutral by 2050. Car manufacturers are rapidly changing designs for the future. Many of us have friends and business contacts who are enjoying working from home and are not keen to return to a crowded office. One friend says her company is planning limited socially distanced office meetings once every two weeks, with smaller groups turning up in shifts when it is essential to meet face-to-face. Everything else is done by Zoom.
As I write this, my friend is at home working through a schedule of eleven online meetings. But if scientists and cyclists, small and large corporations, are all planning how to adapt to survive in the post-Covid economy, and in the process thinking about the environment, one piece of the puzzle is missing: global political leadership.
Like coronavirus itself, no country can tackle climate change alone. The UN climate change discussions, known as COP26, were due to take place in Glasgow in November but have been postponed until the spring as a result of the pandemic. Perhaps by then the US will have a president who recognises the existential threat posed by climate change and the need for multinational action. The Trump presidency has wasted four years ignoring a threat to humankind that is potentially more devastating than coronavirus. All the new cycling enthusiasts in the world cannot make up for another four years of doing nothing.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter
Updated: June 23, 2020 09:24 AM