An exit strategy from the Covid-19 and the climate crises

Tony Emerson asks five questions for moving into a more sustainable post-Covid world:

Pope Francis was interviewed for The Tablet (08/04/20) about the pandemic before Easter. He commented: “Every crisis contains both danger and opportunity: the opportunity to move out from the danger. Today I believe we have to slow down our rate of production and consumption (Laudato Si, 191) and to learn to understand and contemplate the natural world. We need to reconnect with our real surroundings. This is the opportunity for conversion”.

Or put another way: can we learn to enjoy the enforced simpler living, build it into lives, individually and collectively?

I found an affirmative answer to this question in a rather unlikely place. In a thoughtful article on the 24th April, in the Irish Independent (not my favourite Irish newspaper, but the only one selling paper copies in the UK) Liz Kearney talks about her experience as a parent in a Dublin suburban estate. Her boys ride around on their bikes in the (almost traffic-free) streets, explore and make dens just as she and her friends did in the 1980s.  “They have reclaimed the streets as their very own DIY playgrounds, exactly as we did when we were kids.”

So what can we do to make the current reduction in road traffic that’s being experienced in most European countries more permanent?  That’s the first question I pose.

Another sector of the economy we could look at is clothing. Sales are down more than 30%, as people have little need for dressing up. Jeremy Williams’ article on clothing cites positive examples of going against the fast fashion trends. How could these be re-enforced and become the new norm? This is the second question I pose.

While our new publication gives examples of practical action towards sustainability in many other sector of our economy. How can we build on such examples? Question number three.

Air travel needs special attention. Because of the impact of emissions in the upper atmosphere, flying generates six or seven times the carbon emissions of rail or coach travel over the same distance. A relatively small number of wealthier than average people do a lot of climate harm. How many of these flights are necessary or really contribute to well being?

Clearly air travel has a particular role in facilitating the spread of the Covid virus. This virus requires human to human transmission, it doesn’t travel more than a few metres on the wind. The first recorded infection in the UK was a man who had returned from a skiing trip to the Alps. Covid required human transporters to travel from China to Europe and to other countries and continents. The aeroplane is the main facilitator of such transportation.

Bill Gates in The Observer (19/04/20) is quoted as saying in 2015, long before this present pandemic: “given the continual emergence of new pathogens … and the ever-increasing interconnectedness of our world, there is a significant probability that a large and lethal pandemic will occur in our lifetime.”

Two points arise from this. First, we need to ensure that another pandemic does not spread so widely and wildly.  Secondly, do we have to accept the present model of global interconnectedness, specifically one that involves people flying around the world on leisure trips? Or so many business trips now that we have various forms of video conferencing available? This is my fourth question.

Lastly, we have to remember that the Christian quest for social justice must underpin all our thinking and action. John Bell of the Iona Community, in a BBC Thought for the Day, argues strongly that the post pandemic norm needs to be very different to the old norm.  We must not go back to paying care workers a pittance, or allowing some firms to get away with high level of pollution.  During the pandemic inequalities have actually been highlighted.  The plight of families living in overcrowded estates, with limited access to parks or open spaces, with parental incomes slashed, is very different to that of the journalist living in a Dublin suburb.

How can we ensure that the new sustainable economy gets the resources it needs?  That will mean some public funding – while public services are maintained and people on low incomes are paid more?  All in an economy which has taken a very big hit. This is my fifth question.  So what taxes need to be raised? Whether on property, wealth or income.

We invite your comments on these questions, which we will collate into another article in a few weeks’ time.

In conclusion, we have to realise that these changes will mean probably sacrifices for many of us.  But worthwhile sacrifices. There will be rear-guard action from those trying to get back to the pre-Covid status quo. However this is a time of great opportunity.  Old certainties are being questioned, even by some in the current government.  The opposition has a new leader with a new team around him.  John Daniels told us about the big reductions in CO2 emission due to Covid-19.  Big but not big enough, so far.  Now is the time for Christians and the churches to use their various modes of influence on government and businesses.

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