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Talking point: Coronavirus and the climate emergency

Wild fire - Image credit: ico_k-pax / iStock / Getty Images Plus via ECMWF

Talking point: Coronavirus and the climate emergency

What a difference a year makes. One year ago last week, on 28 April 2019, the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, declared a climate emergency at the SNP’s spring conference, the first world leader to do so.

Little could we have imagined then how different the world would look in 12 months’ time.

With all the effort that is going into tackling the global pandemic, it’s easy to forget that there was already an existing emergency.

That from November to January one of the key tragedies hitting the news was out of control bushfires in Australia or that in February the crisis Boris Johnson was being criticised for handling badly was severe flooding in parts of England and Wales.

Those things haven’t gone away. People in affected parts of Australia and the UK are still trying to rebuild their homes and their lives, hampered even more by the coronavirus outbreak.

The climate emergency too is still an emergency, but there is a risk that all that will be forgotten in what is seen as a more pressing and urgent crisis.

There is a risk that temporary changes in response to COVID-19, with reduced commuting, air travel and industry emissions, improved air quality, pictures of Venice’s crystal-clear canals and talk of walking and cycling on near-empty streets, could look like a dramatic turnaround.

But look around and there are still warnings. A report last week found that insect numbers have dropped by nearly 25 per cent in the 30 years since 1990.

There was a drought warning for the north east of Scotland. And the floods, fires, storms and droughts will not stop because of coronavirus.

The two emergences may in fact converge, as researchers are now looking at the possibility that air pollution may help coronavirus particles to travel further, meaning improving air quality could be doubly important.

It is a sobering thought that researchers at the University of Tasmania have recently attributed more that ten times the number of deaths to the poor air quality as a result of bushfire smoke as actually died in the bushfires themselves – with the 417 excess deaths thought to relate to air quality compared to 33 killed directly by the fires.

There can be no room for complacency. We are still in another emergency.

But there are positives too. In the same way that a serious illness provokes a rethinking of personal priorities, this crisis is provoking a collective re-evaluation of national priorities.

“When things come apart – when the kaleidoscope of our lives is shaken – there is an opportunity to see them put back together differently, and see a new way of doing things,” Sturgeon wrote in the Herald on Sunday.

She talked of going beyond “rebuilding” to “look seriously at social and economic reform”.

There is also talk of politicians, civil servants, business leaders and students taking a new climate solutions course that has been developed by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society along with the Institute of Directors, Stirling University Business School and the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Carbon Innovation.

The one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us is that we are capable, both as individuals and on a government level, of making dramatic changes to our lives and policies – if it is clear there is an emergency and if the course of action is also clearly laid out.

Lessons must be learned from that. The challenge will be how to get the buy-in for an emergency response when the effects of actions will not correlate clearly with results in a matter of weeks – and to ensure that one emergency does not obliterate the other.

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