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Learning from lockdown - strategies for sustainability

The climate crisis demands different policies for different countries and regions, says Dr Dimitrija Kalanoski.

There wasn’t much in the way of good news during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the media was keen to report on the apparent environmental benefits of lockdown. With fewer cars on the roads and planes in the sky, nature seemed to get a new lease of life. The sounds of songbirds rang out and wild animals were seen wandering into our towns and cities.

It was sold as nature’s great rebound, a sign that our environment was more resilient than we thought. But the popular notion that the environment was bouncing back while humanity stayed at home isn’t quite what it seems. The reality is far more complex.

Lifting the lid on lockdown

Lockdown provided just the kind of natural experiment we needed to better understand the environmental cost of globalisation, and how to minimise this cost going forward. A major study I co-authored of air quality in 162 countries found fine particle pollution fell by 35–45%, which persisted even as lockdowns were lifted. But some countries did better than others, with fewer COVID-19 casualties, a less pronounced economic downturn and bigger pollution reductions.

Mapping emissions

It’s now clear that while sectors like transport and industry did see a marked reduction in activity, that was countered by an increase in domestic energy use as more people were self-isolating and working from home. It may be counterintuitive, but falling economic activity is actually bad for the environment in those countries where domestic energy is the biggest source of pollution.

So our analysis of NASA satellite images found that most of the Americas, Europe, Southern Africa, East Asia and the Pacific – largely developed countries where most emissions come from transport and industry - saw improved air quality during lockdown.

But some parts of South America and Asia - where domestic energy use, agriculture and power generation are among the dominant pollution sources - saw their air quality worsen.

Policies for a post-pandemic world

In the future policies aimed at combating climate change must account for such diverse outcomes. As economies develop, environmental quality and economic progress can go hand in hand when shifts towards cleaner production offset the environmental damage from increased production. So, in a post-pandemic world, how do we counter climate change and build a more sustainable economy?

There’s certainly a need for market-based instruments that reward a shift towards the cleaner production and consumption of goods and services. However, that doesn’t just mean putting a price on pollution through taxes or quotas, such as carbon taxes or the recent European plastic tax. It also means incentivising innovation and investment in green technologies.

Reimagining the future

As restrictions are rolled back and vaccination drives sweep the globe, we are faced with a choice - to return to normal or to learn from the pandemic experience and build back better.

Our hope is that our findings, alongside lessons learned from the experience of carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, can help inform smart environmental policy design.

Despite large global air quality improvements, the price of COVID-19 lockdowns was overwhelmingly high. In the future we’ll certainly need a more nuanced policy approach rather than just placing blanket restrictions on economic activity. Past pandemics have forced humans to reimagine their future and this one will be no different.

Blog posts give the views of the author, and are not necessarily those of Alliance Manchester Business School and The University of Manchester.

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