Since the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown, we've been forced to do without the "non-essentials". How exactly you define that phrase varies from country to country, person to person – in Canada, weed is deemed essential; in the UK, police had to apologise for patrolling what they decided were "non-essential" supermarket aisles – but it has brought to light questions about what will be deemed necessary after The Great Pause.
It's in the world of work that these questions could have the greatest impact. If you can do your job from home – as many have discovered they absolutely can – then what's the point in commuting to and from an office every day? If businesses can conduct international meetings over webcam, is international business travel really so essential?
Is it possible that the slowing down of travel, manufacturing and the humdrum of day-to-day capitalist operations has had some positive impact on the planet already? And, if so, could orchestrated global action, as seen during this pandemic, provide a future blueprint for the kind of collective behaviour that could be beneficial to people, planet and the economy?
CLEARING THE AIR
When scientists warned that emissions must start dropping by 2020 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, they probably didn't think a global pandemic would help get that goal on its way – yet it's been widely reported that COVID-19 could trigger the biggest fall in anthropogenic carbon emissions (emissions created by human activity) since World War 2.
NASA's satellite images show a dramatic decline in pollution levels in China, across Wuhan – the birthplace of the virus – Beijing and Shanghai, due to decreased economic activity. Although this is for all the wrong reasons, it's a small piece of good news, and – if sustained – may put us on track for reversing the damage to the planet. We can also see the drop in emissions across the rest of the world from January to March 2020 compared to the same period of time last year.
According to The Global Carbon Project, global carbon emissions were expected to rise this year, but instead might fall by around 5 percent – or 2.5 billion tons, the lowest levels seen since the recession a decade ago.
The first offender when it comes to carbon emissions is an obvious one: air travel. According to FlightRadar24, a website that tracks global air traffic in real time, the average number of daily flights has more than halved in the last two months, from 183,890 on Friday the 10th of January to 71,809 on Tuesday the 14th of April. After a dramatic fall between the 9th of March and the 29th of March, global commercial air traffic has now stabilised at around 29 percent of its previous levels. That's basically 71 percent fewer planes in the sky than before the pandemic.
We can't expect this number to remain as it has once lockdowns are lifted, not least because those with the means will be rebooking their cancelled summer holidays en masse. But it's worth considering what we can learn from the last few months: in America alone, around 65 million long-distance flights are taken every year for business. With what we know now, how many of these could truly be deemed essential? Sixty-seven percent of respondents to a 2018 survey said they find it difficult to build relationships over video; if the remaining 33 percent were happy to conference call rather than fly, you'd be cutting the number of business flights by over a third.
There aren't just climate benefits to reducing emissions, but health ones too. According to WHO, air pollution kills an estimated 7 million people worldwide every year, and nine out of ten people breathe air that contains high levels of pollutants. In both China and India, countries whose citizens are victim to some of the worst levels of air pollution in the world, the lockdown has allowed city dwellers to properly see the sky for the very first time.
Data from The Centre for International Climate Research (CICERO) found that, in February, there was a 20 to 30 percent decrease in air pollution. If those levels continue across a long-term period, we could save 50,000 to 100,000 lives prematurely affected by bad air.
The world has to open up again: the economic ramifications of long-term global lockdowns are dire, and stand to decrease the quality of life for millions of people. But responsible businesses could learn from this period, take stock of how many unnecessary air miles they pay for every year and change their policies accordingly.
SLOW MOVING LIFE
Google's COVID-19 Community Mobility Report, which uses anonymous geolocation data from mobile phones to see if people are observing social distancing rules, illustrates the fact that we're moving around less. In countries such as Germany, Italy, the UK, the United States and Canada there has been a decrease in all public activity and an increase in people staying at home.
Decreased mobility has also seen the number of cars on the road decrease in major cities across the world. According to data from TomTom, traffic levels have substantially decreased since pre-coronavirus averages. For the first time in years, many people are finding their usually busy streets all but empty. In the UK, national data from the Cabinet Office found that motor traffic dropped by 73 percent on the 29th of March, when compared with pre-virus levels. In India, the COVID-19 curfew resulted in the lowest traffic pollution levels on record across one day.
In the UK, up to half of the population have been unable to work from home – and those who have are more likely to be higher paid workers in London and the South East. However, data from the British Chambers of Commerce showed that "54 percent of businesses [across the country] are using remote working to maintain business continuity". In the EU, nearly 30 percent of CO2 emissions come from transport, 72 percent of which is road transportation. In England, 67 percent of workers – around 20.5 million people – travel to work by car. Imagine the environmental impact if even a quarter of those drivers worked from home where possible.
Fewer cars and planes in operation would also mean demand for fuel would decrease. According to data from Rystad Energy, a Norwegian energy consultancy, the demand for oil across the world could drop by more than five times and also dent demand for petrol and diesel by an average of 9.4 percent over 2020. That's 2.6 million less barrels of oil a day.
We all know that people are trying to connect more during lockdown. Video chat app Houseparty went from 3,955 downloads on the 16th March to 81,858 in just one week, according to Priori Data. But what about the humble telephone? Verizon, the American telecoms group, is currently handling an average of 800 million wireless calls a day during the week – more than double the number made on the busiest call day of the year, Mother's Day.
According to AT&T, US citizens are making 35 percent more calls than before the outbreak and are also talking for longer – 33 percent longer – while Wi-Fi calls had nearly doubled from averages in normal times.
The environmental advantages of fewer people travelling to work are clear – but businesses also stand to benefit financially. Data from Abintra Consulting's report "Wasted Space: The colossal cost of under-used office real estate" shows that big businesses in England and Wales waste £10 billion a year on under-used office space, and that 30 to 50 percent of that real estate could be freed up by flexible working.
In the US, a study by Cintrix found that 62 percent of employees who are not already working remotely believe that they could work away from the office at least one day per week. According to Global Workplace Analytics, only 3.6 percent of the workforce worked at home half the time or more in 2019 – but they estimate that 25 to 30 percent will be working at home on a "multiple-days-a-week" basis by the end of 2021.
According to Rob Jackson, Chair of The Global Carbon Project, "working from home, even a day or two a week, would cut greenhouse gas emissions, clean the air in our cities and save lives as a result".
Although we've seen some initial reversals of the impacts of climate change, experts warn that this might be short-lived. A couple of months of decreased emissions is nothing on the decades of accumulated carbon dioxide still in our atmosphere, and only real structural change can make a lasting impact. If governments acted with the same urgency on climate change as they have on COVID-19, we might avoid future catastrophes that could be bigger and much more calamitous than a pandemic.
Still, despite the damage COVID-19 has already wreaked on the world – and not forgetting the recession to come – some of the collateral benefits are undeniable.
Fewer cars on the road, more people working from home and fewer people flying half way around the world for a one-off meeting have clearly benefitted the planet in the short-term. Whether we'll be able to learn from these changes in the long-run remains to be seen.