Building Back Better – what can the coronavirus pandemic teach us in the fight against climate change?

04 Jun 2020
By James Tiernan, Head of Energy & Environment at Unite Students
How are you finding the new norm? The changes we’ve all had to make over the last couple of months would have seemed almost impossible to imagine not that long ago.  I remember my grandparents telling me once of how during the Second World War they’d only been able to take a weekend in a local B&B for their honeymoon because of movement restrictions.  At the time, I found it impossible to imagine not being able to just go where you like when you like – yet here we are, living through lockdown.  It’s reminded me just how incredibly adaptable humans can be: change can be daunting, but when it does happen most of us quite quickly come to terms with it.  And, panic buying of loo roll aside, I think it’s revealed an instinctive desire to help others in a crisis. 

The pandemic will change many aspects of life – whether it is the value society places on key workers, a new appreciation for spending time with family and friends, or wider acceptance of flexible working, many things will probably not be the same again.  One thing that will remain however is the climate crisis; while the coronavirus pandemic has caused almost unimaginable suffering, the long-term human, economic and ecological impacts of climate change have the potential to be far worse. 

The World Health Organisation estimate that climate change already causes an additional 150,000 deaths each year, with that figure rising to 1.5million by 2100 on the current track. The changes needed to avoid this, and other catastrophic impacts of climate change, are huge and it can be hard to see what difference we can make as individuals. 

It’s sometimes easy to forget just how adaptable and ingenious we can be. If the coronavirus pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that each of us can make a difference; behavioural norms can change – and fast; and that often the solutions we need are right in front of us already. Within just a few short months long standing barriers to change have been swept away; social norms and behaviours have changed; communities have rallied together to support the most vulnerable; technology has been harnessed and repurposed to solve urgent challenges.  So, what can we learn from the current crisis when squaring up to the challenge of climate change? 

Good enough is good enough: Whether it is clean energy, carbon capture or new economic models – engineers, scientists, economists and businesses all over the world are working to develop new solutions to help fight climate change.Like the COVID-19 vaccine that scientists are striving for today, one of these solutions could be the holy grail we need to tackle climate change.  But as nuclear physicists apparently like to joke (I don’t know any in person to check!) “nuclear fusion [and the limitless clean energy it promises] is just 20 years away – and always will be!”.  We can’t rely on the tools we may or may not have in the future, instead we need to make the most of what we have available right now.  Faced with shortages in PPE for health workers, thousands of face-shields have been produced in workshops, front rooms, laboratories and factories as people repurpose 3D printers and pizza ovens to help meet demand.  Similarly, many of the solutions to climate change are here already, whether it is insulating homes, rolling out heat pumps and solar PV panels, or investing in electric vehicles, we need to get the most out of them now.As the old saying goes – “bread today is better than cake tomorrow”.

Guided by the science: across the world science has been at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19: informing policy, driving decision making, and finding solutions.  It is time to listen to climate scientists in the same way we’ve listened to epidemiologists and medics.  We need to face the challenge head on and build policies and strategies around science not politically or economically expedient alternatives. 

Reinventing the norm: Before lockdown, many companies, organisations and individuals would have insisted that it was just impossible to do their job remotely – that hours spent in a daily commute or traveling to meetings were essential, or that the IT and technical challenges of remote working were insurmountable.  But within weeks many of these obstacles have been swept aside.  While fulltime home working may not be the answer, it shows us that change is possible, and can quite quickly become the new normal.  Such rapid shifts could have severe consequences for some sectors.  The aviation industry has been struggling to reconcile growing pressure to reduce carbon emissions with the inconvenient truth that this requires people to fly less.  COVID-19 has reduced global air travel by 95% pushing many airlines to the brink and threatening millions of jobs worldwide, and airlines will require substantial state support to survive.  Should this support come with conditions though, forcing airlines to accelerate decarbonisation?  Likewise, is this an opportunity for us all to accept that we don’t need to travel as much? 

People power: while scientists and medics are in the frontline against the virus, ultimate success requires us all to play our part.  The sacrifices and hardships we’ve all experienced remind us that the actions of every individual make a small but real difference, and by forming new communities and networks we can amplify this positive impact.  It’s reminded us that every one of us can make a difference, whether it is coronavirus or climate change.  You or I can’t directly change government climate policies, but we can eat less meat, take less flights, buy less stuff, and lobby our politicians to make those essential policy changes. 

The future…

While the pandemic has reminded us that new threats can come from anywhere, it hasn’t diminished the threat posed by climate change.  It’s also shown us how much better it is to be prepared, and the importance of taking early action to avoid the worst impacts rather than trying to deal with the fallout.  These lessons apply equally to climate change.  Like any disruptive event, COVID-19 provides us with a chance to “build back better” – whether it is investing in renewable energy to kick-start economic growth, attaching social and environmental conditions to big-business bailouts, or accepting that we as individuals maybe don’t need to travel so much, we have an unprecedented opportunity to shape the future.

At Unite Students we recognise the enormous task ahead of us if we are to play our part in the fight against climate change.  We’ve already cut our carbon emissions by over 65% over the last 5 years but know we need to do more.  That’s why we’ll be announcing stretching new environmental and social targets as part of our updated Up to uS Sustainability Strategy later this year.  Despite the huge economic cost and untold human suffering COVID-19 has caused, I’d like to think that its lasting legacy to humanity is a reminder that we all have the potential to be change-makers; that not knowing exactly how to solve the problem is no excuse for not trying, and that things often seem impossible until we’ve done them. 

 

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James Tiernan has led the Energy and Environment Team at Unite Students since 2012, on a mission to create business value by reducing environmental impacts. The team’s focus on good utilities management, promoting responsible behaviour in students and employees, and creating efficient buildings has helped Unite deliver a 25% reduction in electricity use per student bedroom since 2014, and a 39% reduction in absolute scope 1 + 2 carbon emissions, and James’s efforts were recognised in 2019, with him receiving the prestigious EDIE Energy Management Leader of the Year award. Before joining Unite Students James worked as an energy and sustainability consultant in the construction and real estate sectors, following 7 years as a commissioned officer in the Royal Engineers. He is a qualified Mountain Leader, and was once electrocuted by a previously undiscovered species of electric fish in Ethiopia during an expedition down the Blue Nile. When not working James spends as much time as possible with his wife and two daughters in the great outdoors. James continues to put his experience and love for the environment to good use in his role at Unite Students.