8 May 2020 No Comments by The Northern Standard


Some of the more philosophical and reflective musings on the Covid-19 pandemic have centred around the restorative effect that the cessation of human activity, and certain forms of industrial production in particular, have had on aspects of the environment. Beyond the birdsong now beguilingly audible in the absence of early morning traffic noise and the enhanced freshness of the air we breathe when we emerge from our homes for exercise is some substantial evidence that the reduction in air pollution and carbon emissions is visiting benefits on the biosphere.

The notion of Mother Nature healing herself is an attractive one, a pleasing temporary offset of the gloom and anxiety that the Coronavirus has brought in its wake. Sadly, it is likely to be all too temporary – the reawakening of industrial activity from its enforced slumber will inevitably bring an intensification of production to make up for lost output, income and wages that will quickly push carbon emissions back to a level that will undo the efficacious effects of lockdown. But the deeper lesson is not as simple, or necessarily as bleak, as that.

If the world has seen an easing of some of harmful practices that are perceived as contributing to climate change over the months when the globe has sought to halt the course of Covid-19, this has not been because of a Damascus conversion by the main national contributors to emissions to the sustainability philosophy – the very nature of this respite means that it is never going to be other than temporary in nature. Yet the enforced suspension of activities that contribute to the climate change problem surely teaches us compelling lessons about what could be achieved if we made sustainable alterations in our behaviour: if we enhanced energy efficiency in both large-scale industrial production and our domestic practices and if we replaced fossil fuels with clean energy alternatives.

A recent article by the influential US climate commentator Katharine Heyhoe argued that is the level of carbon emission reductions detected during the Covid- 19 lockdown were achieved and perpetuated by the universal implementation of sustainable energy policies, the world would very quickly achieve the sort of emission reduction targets that are currently seen as only reachable after a decade or more of sustained action. And there is within the experience of the pandemic an allied example of what can be achieved if nations suspend policy and ideology differences and work in a concerted fashion towards an urgent common objective.

If climate change is the defining challenge of our age, why can’t we come together across the globe to stave off its injurious impact in the same way as we have united to attempt to defeat Covid-19? It is perhaps a Quixotic aspiration, but there is heartening evidence that in this country at least we are heading in the right direction. This week the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland reported that carbon emissions from all energy use fell by 3.9% last year, the biggest annual reduction since 2011 and one achieved outside the pandemic shadow, the main factor in the reduction being the reduced use of fossil fuels in electricity generation.

A good time, then, for the Green Party to bite the bullet and accept a junior role in the government that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are currently attempting to stitch together? While not everyone – not even the younger Greens themselves, apparently – appears to think this is a good idea, there is surely more than just an accidental sense of a conducive moment emerging from the confluence of unusual and apparently adverse circumstances in which what might otherwise be merely a makeweight component of coalition could forge a meaningful influence on the direction of future environmental policy.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan has already acted in the spirit of Shakespeare’s Brutus and attempted to seize that tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune, by winning a written assurance from FF and FG that any new government will commit itself to achieving a 7% reduction in carbon emissions. FG hardman Simon Coveney, so often the verbal bad cop to Mr Varadkar’s good, may have issued a Marc Antonylike repudiation of Mr Ryan’s red-line demand with his declaration that any adverse impact of this policy on farming and rural Ireland would not be countenanced, but his subsequent conciliatory contextualisation of these Sunday newspaper interview remarks suggest that the hurdle will not be insurmountable.

And it is no harm that the interests of the agricultural and rural communities be foregrounded in any debate on climate policy. Farmers and agri-food producers are essential stakeholders in this area, and it is time that meaningful climate action discourse moved away from scapegoating them, acknowledged their commitment and contribution to environmental good practice and afforded them a meaningful input to the framing of future strategies.

We have in the last week begun to make the tentative first steps towards the light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel. This end of the beginning commences a roadmap which tentatively but positively points towards the reawakening of social and employment activity in a changed post-pandemic environment where the primary task of the new government will be to nurture a battered economy back to sustainable health. But the lessons the pandemic has offered us in relation to the environment should not be ignored in that process.

The breathing space afforded the planet by Covid-19 is likely to be a brief one. Its lungs will soon be filled again by air clogged with the exhalations of impatient industrial activity. But the salutary climate action brought about by enforced human inaction surely teaches us something about what could be achieved by concerted global endeavours to tackle the climate change threat that is potentially more lastingly injurious to the planet than the ravages of Covid-19. Hopefully the new government, whether it has an overtly Green component or not, will not ignore this teaching when it comes to the formulation and implementation of its policies.

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