The health crisis may lead to cuts in environmental investments but, at the same time, it may help reduce pollution and naturalize cities
The COVID-19 health crisis brings multiple risks and opportunities for the environment. Researchers Mar Satorras and Isabel Ruiz-Mallén from the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and Professor Hug March from the Faculty of Economics and Business – all three members of the UOC-IN3's Urban Transformation and Global Change Laboratory (TURBA Lab) research group – have identified eight challenges and eight opportunities posed by this new situation. The sixteen points include a number of areas: from budget U-turns in public policy, with the risk of environmental cuts, to changes in citizens' habits, which may lead to the appearance of both new risks and advantages for the environment.
The eight risks posed by the coronavirus crisis are:
1. Cuts. There is a risk of governments deciding to prune the environment budget. New political priorities – healthcare, caring for people and reactivating the economy – may lead to a slowing down of environmental policies and cuts. This would put new climate emergency declarations and climate plans such as awareness-raising campaigns and longer-term environmental education at risk.
2. Environmental legislation. The economic crisis resulting from the lockdown has sparked debate on the relaxation of environmental standards. The United States considered not pursuing penalties for polluting industries. In Catalonia, in April the government announced an administrative simplification act to expedite town planning and environmental procedures. The measure raised a red flag among ecologists.
3. Recovery programmes. The environment could suffer even worse than before COVID-19 if recovery plans promoted by governments in all areas fail to include a "green" perspective. This would put paid to efforts to foster an environmental transition and lead to undertakings going unfulfilled. For example, considering reindustrialization with polluting industries would be a setback for the environment.
4. Fossil fuels. COVID-19 has seriously shaken sectors like tourism and air travel. The consequences for the economy and employment have led to proposals for rescuing these sectors, which would contravene decarbonization strategies.
5. Use of cars. Fear of catching the virus on public transport may lead to greater use of private vehicles. This change in mobility may lead to increased air pollution and CO2 emissions in urban areas.
6. More waste. Despite a drop in waste production during the lockdown, its lifting involves adopting health protection measures such as masks, gloves and other single-use items that could worsen the environmental crisis. Initiatives for reusable materials could reverse this trend.
7. Changes in patterns of human settlement. In the long term, and with the threat of further lockdowns, settlement patterns may change, favouring models of greater environmental impact. This could mean an increase in low-density housing developments close to cities, which would increase dependency on private transport, consuming more land and resources. This model has a far greater carbon footprint.
8. Questioning of the role of science. There is a chance that people may question the role of science in decision-making, given its uncertainty and trial-and-error methods. This would lead to greater reticence to lend support to the making of informed decisions to deal with the climate emergency.
Along with the risks, the post COVID-19 scenario also brings opportunities, like these eight identified by the UOC experts:
1. Mobility. COVID-19 could usher in more sustainable urban mobility (walking, cycling, closing roads to traffic, etc.). That would reduce harmful air pollution in cities as well as greenhouse gas emissions.
2. "Green" recovery plans or "eco-social" action plans. These could serve as long-term strategies to facilitate a way out of the many current crises for everyone.
3. Pollution. Experiences applied during the lockdown can be consolidated in the new normal, including drastic reduction in the use of cars and other polluting modes of transport such as aeroplanes and cruise ships. This would mean that the reduction in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions could be maintained.
4. Naturalization of cities. The lockdown has sped up the naturalization of cities, which we can leverage to introduce large-scale urban greening.
5. Holding meetings, lectures and events online, and rationalizing international air travel. The environmental impact of hypermobility could be significantly reduced in the new normal.
6. Consolidation of teleworking. This could be a chance to foster settling in rural areas (change of residence from cities to small towns) or to redistribute the population and boost medium-sized cities.
7. Change of perception of the climate emergency. The realization regarding the fragility of current societies in regard to the pandemic could also affect people's perception of the climate emergency. Social concern and awareness are key factors in bringing about changes in behaviour and political change.
8. Strengthening of the role of science. The role of science when making decisions in the context of the health crisis could highlight the benefits of drawing up and implementing policies substantiated by the scientific community to deal with crises, both current and new.
This exploratory analysis was carried out as a prior step to adapting the climate change research carried out by RESCITIES, a project funded by the State Research Agency, to the possible scenarios established by COVID-19 in the short and medium term.