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Is this the end of the sustainable movement or the beginning of a whole new one?

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Collage by Dylan Jones

There has been a lot of talk about covid19 being the end of the sustainable movement. Understandably, right now people prefer to buy safely packaged and sealed commodities, sadly, ‘safely packaged’ often involves plastic. There have also been a lot of articles on ‘can the zero-waste movement survive the crisis?’ Even the popular zero wasters like Lauren Singer and Bea Johnson have admitted to switching to products with plastic packaging versus their usual package free shopping in the event of the crisis. Also, sustainability has gone off the main agenda for many big companies as they struggle to stay afloat and deal with major market/ employment concerns. Even the United Nations Climate Conference has been postponed to next year and climate change scientists have had to halt their research because of lockdown. Environmentalism has sadly and understandably taken a backseat during this crisis just at the point we were gaining traction in our fight for the environment.

While we rejoice in the clean air that has emerged out of the lockdown, there are also many governments passing bills to push back environmental regulations so that the industries can financially recover faster from this crisis. They feel it is a necessary step to get their countries back on track in terms of economic growth and prosperity. Many fear that as things go back to a type of “normal”, industries will reign back on environmental advances and return to “dirty” practices.

The pandemic has been a moment of reckoning for the human civilization. While there is still much to be fearful about, we have had the chance to reflect on how we have been living and how we would like to move forward. As we talk about things going back to normal, we actually need to look for a ‘new normal’ because the old one just wasn’t working.

It’s not just the lack of cars that have made the difference but the change of our everyday habits where we, in many ways, have shifted towards a much more sustainable lifestyle. With the borders being shut and limited imports coming in, we have been forced to eat more locally sourced food and this has drastically reduced emissions thereby cutting the carbon footprint of our food. Our consumption habits have changed drastically as well. Currently, we’re choosing what we need versus what we want which can often be wasteful. There has been increased interest in communities trying to grow their own food, not just through fear of a possible food scarcity but also because it can be physically therapeutic and mentally satisfying at a trying time like this. Recent research found that the pandemic has inspired approximately 64% of Americans to consider living more sustainably and this is a trend across the world right now.

We have come to realise the huge impact that government policies can have on human behaviour and the environment forced on us during the lockdowns. We have seen that a collective shift in human consciousness and behaviour is possible. While a major concern for governments right now is how to drive their economies forward it’s come as a pleasant surprise that some progressive governments have recognised the relationship between the pandemic and climate change. They are seeing this crisis as an opportunity to restructure the system with a green economic recovery that is more resilient to the climate crisis as well as reduce the likelihood and better prepare for future pandemics to come.

Many cities have already announced ambitious plans to reduce car use in their recovery plans. Understandably, widespread public transport will not be considered an entirely safe medium of transport without significant redesign and additional control measures. However, an increase in private vehicles will result in gridlock, which will not only make it impossible for the emergency vehicles but the increase in air pollution would make symptoms of Covid-19 far worse.

Many progressive cities have come up with a solution for this including Milan, Barcelona, Bogota, Mexico City, Paris, New York, London and Vancouver, who have started implementing plans to reallocate street space from cars to cycling and walking. Plans include adding new bike lanes up to 50kms long and widening pavements. At the same time, bicycle sales are skyrocketing in Australia and e-bikes have seen a sudden burst of sales in the U.S and Germany.

“This pandemic has made us realise how interconnected we actually are and that we need to work with a sense of community and collaboration.”

A beacon of hope has also been lit by the EU in showing other countries and trading blocs how to rebuild COVID-19 ravaged economies while protecting the environment and tackling climate change. Their Green Recovery Package will provide €20 billion for clean cars and 2m charging points over two years along with up to €60 billion for zero-emission trains and the production of 1 million tonnes of clean hydrogen. They also plan to pour €91 billion into home efficiency programmes along with €25 billion for renewable energy. Combined, these measures will produce over a million new jobs. To placate and transition countries still reliant on coal, the EU are also increasing the Transition Fund to €40 billion, softening any short-term economic impact on countries like Poland and Romania.

While China are sending out mixed messages, Trump is trashing climate agreements and the UK are silent, the EU are showing the world that a progressive green agenda can lead them out of a pandemic induced recession while still driving forward with a transformational climate policy.

At the same time, city councils are also looking to choose a greener path. Mayors from cities across continents are holding talks to co-ordinate their efforts to support a low-carbon, sustainable recovery. They have been discussing measures ranging from huge retrofitting programs to making buildings more energy efficient, to mass tree planting, to investment in solar and wind power.

In the southern hemisphere, New Zealand is leading the way in trying to boost the economy while protecting the environment. They have pledged a whooping 1.1 billion dollars towards nature-based jobs, including pest control and conservation in their recovery plan. The aim is to generate employment for out-of-work Kiwis through plantation, cleaning and conservation programs that would ‘help protect and restore indigenous biodiversity and habitat, help with re-vegetation of private and public conservation land and undertake riparian planting’.

South Korea held its first COVID-19 elections in April and saw the landslide victory of The Democratic party who had a Green New Deal in their agenda. The newly elected President, Moon Jae-In gave the party a clear mandate to implement the Green New Deal as soon as he stepped into office. The government has already announced their ambitious goal of producing zero emissions by 2050 and to end coal financing.

This pandemic has made us realize how interconnected we actually are and that we need to work with a sense of community and collaboration. We have experienced at first hand that what we do affects others and this is true not just during the COVID emergency but also in terms of climate change. So, while we’re still going through this crisis, we can see that there is a lot to be hopeful for. Many are coming to recognise that the pandemic is just a part of a bigger problem and we need to retain sustainable habits after the lockdowns are lifted and beyond.

We need to keep this consciousness within us alive. At the same time, while governments contemplate a greener economy plan, we need shout out to them that it is imperative that we go down that route; that the citizens demand it too. Initiatives like the EU’s Green Recovery Package point the way to more radical long-term measures that will help tackle inequality, climate crisis and prevent pandemics in the future. Collective and individual change along with greener Government policies is the only way we can tackle the climate crisis head on and boost economies post COVID at the same time.