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Expert Opinion: Can virus perspective help us achieve net-zero carbon?

Tanya-Lloyd Jones, RPS

The rate of change we have witnessed across global society in recent weeks has been extraordinary. The unprecedented circumstances brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have forced an almost instant change to our living and working habits. What we have seen is behavioural change at a global scale, writes Tanya Lloyd-Jones.

Health – or survival - has become the number one priority and anything non-essential has immediately taken a back seat. Put in fight or flight mode, in just a few short weeks businesses across the UK and Ireland have adopted technology, embraced flexible working and reformed whole service offerings at a rate that just last month may have seemed impossible. And while the circumstances are harrowing, the results have been inspiring.

With a new perspective, our understanding of what’s possible has changed rapidly.

Achieving net-zero carbon will require radical behavioural change in the way we live, work, produce and consume. The scale of change required is huge and everyone has a role to play; from individuals making more sustainable purchasing or travel decisions, to large organisations making significant operational changes and the government passing legislation to enable it all. As a challenge it can feel daunting.

Yet in just a matter of weeks, together we have proved it is possible. As countries around the world have gone into lockdown, the environment is recovering.

Levels of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere have plunged as traffic and industry emissions have reduced. In the UK, some cities including London have seen a fall in nitrogen oxide levels of over 40% on the same period last year. Biodiversity is also recovering with wildlife returning to the world-famous Venice canals as the cruise ships and motorised boats that usually populate them are moored. Additionally, with less noise pollution being emitted during the lockdown, and humans confined to their homes, reports are emerging from across the globe of animals - including monkeys, coyotes and mountain goats - making forays into towns and cities.

Of course the lockdown restrictions are not sustainable or desirable in the longer term. We will win the fight against this virus and society will be safe to return to normal. But perhaps when we do, it will be with a new perspective on change.

What can we learn from the coronavirus pandemic?

  • What classes as ‘essential travel’? – A term that carries a very different meaning today than ever before. The restrictions have forced a rethink of travel, proving which journeys we could avoid, combine or travel on foot or bicycle. If continued these behavioural changes could decrease individual car usage.
  • The importance of local environments – placemaking and open spaces. We have all become more reliant on our local environments, reaffirming the importance for green open spaces and community amenities. Town planning has the ability to design car travel out of our daily routines and design for wellbeing and improved mental health.
  • Remote and flexible working is possible – Continuing with a more flexible approach to what ‘work’ looks like could reduce the number of employees regularly commuting long distances. The adoption of technology to host video meetings could all but remove the need to regularly travel hundreds of miles for colleague or client meetings – reducing emissions as well as improving work/life balance. A change in working patterns and less bodies in an office at any one time could also create opportunity to reconfigure office spaces and their role in a productive workforce; promoting a hub for collaboration and wellbeing over computer stations.
  • We are stronger together - When united under a common goal, teams across industry are more collaborative, develop relationships quickly and work together to solve problems. We’re proud to be part of the team working in collaboration with the Army, the NHS, consultancies and contractors to deliver urgently needed hospital facilities. These schemes would usually take a minimum 6 months to a year using traditional procurements routes and stage sign offs, not 2 to 3 weeks. Sharing of knowledge has been first class and it has enabled truly great things.
  • Staying connected is more important than ever – In a period of change and uncertainty, maintaining relationships and social connectivity is so important for wellbeing. Although not a replacement for face to face contact, the use of technology enables friends and family to keep in touch and has sparked imaginative variations on social gatherings.

As we come out the other side of this pandemic it’s crucial we don’t let the climate agenda slip. Continuing to build on the momentum the pandemic has inadvertently created seems a chance too good to miss. Net-zero carbon may require a ‘new normal’, but recent weeks have demonstrated that change is achievable and perhaps a lot quicker than we think.

BY TANYA LLOYD JONES

 

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