The impact of the pandemic on the climate crisis is smaller than you might think. This is what it means for the future of sustainability.
At first glance, the temporary global shutdown due to coronavirus seems like a huge win for climate change. As the UK slowly begins to exit lockdown, data shows that restricting our movements has ensured a drastic fall in carbon emissions. However, that fall is temporary. As the world slowly begins to open up, history indicates a quick increase in emissions without continued commitment to infrastructural change.
Restriction of movement has a direct impact on carbon emissions. Since ¼ of carbon emissions are a result of transportation (public transport, cars, flights), national lockdown measures caused emissions to plummet overnight. Data from Google’s Community Mobility Reports shows that movement within London fell by 73% in the weeks after lockdown was announced.
Industry emissions also fell hard. As factories and businesses were forced to close, their emissions fell with them. Although all of this sounds like great news for the environment, the resulting rise in unemployment has potentially catastrophic economic implications. Reduced industry activity and job loss triggered a temporary dip in carbon emissions, but cannot be sustained for a long period of time and aren’t solutions to the climate crisis.
This is not the first time that emissions have significantly dipped due to forces outside of our control. During the 2008 financial crash, global greenhouse emissions fell by 1.3%. Unfortunately, this decline was only temporary; in a bid to restart the economy, greenhouse gasses rapidly returned to and surpassed base levels.
The coronavirus pandemic gives an indication of the scale of the climate crisis. After all the restrictions on movement and the enormous change the global population has made in day-to-day life, the total decrease in carbon emissions is only around 5.5% of the total global output. In order to make any progress preventing global warming from reaching the critical 1.5 ⷪC, we need a continual decline of 7.6% each year.
Clearly, much more than permanent lifestyle change is needed to remain in accordance with the Paris Agreement, the world’s first legally-binding climate change agreement.
At this point, no one can predict whether emissions will sky-rocket off the back of the current pandemic, although it does seem likely. However, there are indications that people are not ready or willing to go back to the lives they lived previously, and even see the positives in some of the lifestyle changes. As the UK works to rebuild our economy, we have the opportunity to look for solutions that will address both COVID-19 and climate crisis at the same time.
Not travelling isn’t exactly an option post-pandemic, but certain changes could have lasting benefits. As a result of the health risk associated with public transportation, bicycle sales are up by almost 200%. Road transportation accounts for 1/5 of greenhouse gas emissions, so the increase in cycling could stand to make a significant impact. As far as the non-domestic built environment, this means more accessible and higher-quality cyclist facilities including storage, showers and lockers.
By now nearly all of us are part of the Remote Work Experiment. Trust between management and employees has grown as a result, meaning some permanent implementation of remote work strategies is more-than-likely. This would mean less commuting, an increase in remote appointments and replacing international air travel with video-conferencing. If businesses can keep accommodating these new ideas post-pandemic, there will be major benefits both for the climate and employee wellbeing.
Shorter supply chains
The pandemic has raised new questions about the resilience of supply chains and complex global production methods, triggering a renewed interest in local production. A more local and therefore shorter supply chain could mean that final products have much less embodied carbon. It also creates the opportunity for more circular supply chains with improved resource efficiency.
Higher building standards
COVID-19 has pushed us to evaluate how healthy our buildings are. Spending more time indoors and at home has caused an increase in awareness of the environmental quality of residential spaces, with residents adding plants, humidifiers and air purifiers to their homes. Workspace is also seeing a surge in attention to health and safety as well as workplace wellbeing. Poor-quality built environments pose a major threat to occupant health (poor indoor air quality, mould, lack of daylight etc.), security (cost of living) and energy efficiency. Buildings account for nearly 30% of global CO2 emissions and, to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, there is a strong need to retrofit existing building stock. Many passive design strategies like manual windows, increased daylight, cross ventilation, external shades or brise-soleil can increase healthy indoor conditions as well as decrease energy consumption.
As the UK’s leading design and build company, we take our commitment to sustainability very seriously. Our sustainable procurement policy includes environmentally-minded materials and processes for every stage of the design and build process, and every project we do adheres to a strict waste-management policy that diverts all possible materials from landfill. On average, we’re able to recycle at least 98.5% of waste on site, though 17 of our projects in 2019 had a recycling rate of 100%, meaning zero waste went to landfill. Our services are also certified as meeting the environmental requirements of ISO 14001.
We work with clients on a range of accreditations for their workspace, including certification for leading sustainability and wellbeing standards BREEAM, SKA Rating, Fitwel, and WELL. Our own office is in the process of receiving a SKA Gold certification, and we’ve reduced our carbon footprint by 34.5% in the last year as part of our 10-year involvement with The Planet Mark.
COVID-19 has shown us how quickly we can make changes to our lives when faced with a global emergency. Unfortunately, the pandemic is not the only global emergency we’re facing. We now have an opportunity to build our economy back better than it was before, with the planet in mind. A large portion of the changes needed to follow through with the Paris Agreement will come from the way the spaces we live and work in are designed and built.