Politicians are debating how the country can get back to normal as we begin the long road to recovery from Coronavirus. Citizens should make it clear that we must not return to “business as normal”. My heartfelt sympathies go out to all who have lost loved ones to this awful pandemic and to those that have lost livelihoods. Tragic as the last few weeks have been, there have been some positives to the situation. A recent report from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air says the improvement in air quality over the last month of the coronavirus lockdown has led to 11,000 fewer deaths from pollution in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.
“Sharp falls in road traffic and industrial emissions have also resulted in 1.3m fewer days of work absence, 6,000 fewer children developing asthma, 1,900 avoided emergency room visits and 600 fewer preterm births.” While the pandemic continues to take a terrible toll – more than 233,000 deaths worldwide since the start of the year as I write – the authors of the report say the response has offered a glimpse of the cleaner, healthier environment that is possible if the world shifts away from polluting fossil fuel industries.
Unfortunately, the drastic changes we have made in reducing travel are not enough if we are to avoid climate catastrophe. George Monbiot pointed out that “despite the vast changes we have made in our lives, global carbon dioxide emissions are likely to reduce by only about 5.5% this year. A UN report shows that to stand a reasonable chance of avoiding 1.5C or more of global heating, we need to cut emissions by 7.6% per year for the next decade. In other words, the lockdown exposes the limits of individual action. Travelling less helps, but not enough. To make the necessary cuts we need structural change. This means an entirely new industrial policy, created and guided by government.”
Governments and Councils must drop their road-building plans. Sheffield Council’s scheme to build a dual carriageway through Sheaf Valley Park, behind the station, should be thrown out straight away.
Airports must contract. Our carbon budget will not allow a return to the days when a plane ticket was cheaper than the fee to park your car at the airport. Richard Branson must not be given the £500 million bailout he has asked for. Virgin Atlantic has not paid the Government taxes, so why should we support Virgin Atlantic now they are in trouble? They should not be resuscitated. Governments should support the companies and organisations that will help secure the survival of our species and the rest of the living world, not those that are pushing us to the brink of extinction. Fossil fuels must be left in the ground.
Our local peer, Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle has been urging the Government not to bail out parasitic companies because they have failed to pay their taxes and support our NHS and public services. She wrote
“The firms based in tax havens, with complex “tax-efficient”, structures – ranging from water suppliers and nursing home chains to coffee shops and finance firms — are companies relying for their profits on infrastructure that we all pay for, on the labour of their workers, on customers dependent on hospitals, schools and policing. Amazon, which I often describe as the Great Parasite, is the obvious case study here: on the road outside your house today there was almost certainly a van carrying parcels for Amazon and you contributed to the cost of that road. Amazon did not.”
The pandemic has shown that many jobs can continue without the constant need to travel. So Councils should be looking at plans for reducing the need to move and investing in walking, cycling and public transport. We need wider pavements, segregated cycle lanes, buses and trams that run for service, not profit. The photo shows a new temporary cycle lane in York, making much better use of the road space now traffic has reduced. The government must invest heavily in green energy and even more in projects that reduce the demand for energy. Top of this list is home insulation, a real win-win that will reduce both fuel poverty and carbon emissions.
This pandemic has made our society re-evaluate the importance of different jobs. All of a sudden care workers, health workers, teachers, shop workers, refuse collectors, bus drivers and all the other key workers have become heroes. We can’t go back to the time when these jobs were looked down on and undervalued both in pay and respect. A post-corona society must be a much more equal society where all good work is valued and paid well, and no one can become obscenely rich. Don’t let politicians take us back to business as usual. Let’s build a new normal, starting from today.