Today, Friday 5 June 2020 marks World Environment Day. World Environment Day is the United Nations day for encouraging worldwide awareness and action to protect our environment. To acknowledge the day, Lydia Isaacs, a member of our Environment Committee reflects on the coronavirus restrictions and the impact on the environment.
As the UK settles into its tenth week of lockdown, we are starting to see glimpses of hope that we might soon be back to work, the gym, and school. But while we are all looking forward to enjoying things we did before lockdown, we shouldn't be so hasty to revert back to all of our old ways.
How living in lockdown has eased our impact on the environment
One of the silver linings of the COVID-19 restrictions has been the drop in pollution as a result of traffic-free roads, plane-free skies, and the overall fall in demand for energy globally. The reduction in both air and traffic pollution over the past 3 months has had monumental effects across the globe.
For the first time in 30 years, the Himalayan mountain range can be seen in Punjab and other Northern cities in India. In Venice, the absence of tourism and decreased canal traffic has vastly improved the clarity of the canals and marine life has subsequently returned. In the US, the black bear population at Yosemite Valley, a US National Park, has quadrupled since its closure in March. Park employees have observed the native wildlife repossess space usually occupied by the millions of tourists that visit the Park each year and wildlife is said to be thriving.
In news closer to home, Oxford Street, championed in 2016 as the 'Most Polluted Street in the World', has seen a reduction of 47% in the daily average of nitrogen dioxide levels since lockdown begun. The decrease in traffic in the city, coupled with existing measures such as the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), has dramatically improved London's air quality.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that the world will use 6% less energy in 2020 than it did in 2019. This drop in energy demand will have a further knock-on effect on the global coal demand, falling by 8% on last year's figures, reducing the global carbon footprint for the year. However, once the lockdown has been lifted and 'business as usual' returns, these figures too will return to 'normal' and the environmental benefits we have seen over the past few months will be reversed. So how do we ensure that this cleaner and greener planet is not merely a short-term consequence of the lockdown?
Some ways to ensure that these changes are not short lived
Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Program highlights that: "only long-term systemic shifts will change the trajectory of CO2 levels in the atmosphere". Although these environmental benefits of lockdown cannot be maintained at the same level in the long-term, we can adopt some of the lessons we have learned and incorporate some of the lifestyle changes we have made going forward.
Barren supermarket shelves at the beginning of the lockdown - a result of panic buying - is not a usual sight, and thankfully supermarkets are back to being fully stocked. However, we are not unfamiliar with the concept of over buying food as a nation.
According to 2020 data from Wrap (a British waste and recycling charity), 68kg of food is wasted per person, each year, in the UK. For every kilo of food wasted, 1,000 litres of water is also wasted, and carbon emissions of 3.8kg are produced. WWF reports that 11% of all greenhouse gas emissions that come from the food system can be reduced if we stop wasting food. So how do we stop wasting food?
Making sure that we are buying what is 'essential' should extend beyond the lockdown. Buying responsibly involves planning meals to reduce buying unnecessary amounts of food. Freezing or preserving fresh produce before it expires also prevents food waste. Sometimes throwing food away is inevitable, but making sure that this is composted and the packaging is recycled reduces the amount of waste that ends up in landfill.
However, if you did overbuy at the beginning of the lockdown and now have non-perishable foods that you will not use, donating these to a food bank is a great option.
Milan, one of the worst polluted European cities, has announced that 35km of its city's streets will be transformed into cycle paths, in an attempt to maintain lower levels of traffic in its city centre once the lockdown is lifted. The UK is looking to implement similar measures, after it was announced that capacity limits will be imposed on public transport, to allow for continued social distancing.
In London, instead of the usual 352,000 passengers that travel by Tube every 15 minutes, during peak hours, this number will be cut to 50,000. Similarly, buses will have capacity for 15 passengers, as opposed to the usual 85.
Although a reduced public transport service is not necessarily ideal, the Mayor of London and TFL are focusing on constructing a 'strategic cycling network' to combat this. Pavements across London have also been widened to allow for greater numbers of Londoners to get around without breaching social distancing measures.
This investment into greener means of transportation aims to prevent an increase in car journeys, given the adverse effect this would have on London's air quality. This means that for those who are within walking or cycling distance of their place of work, once lockdown is lifted, this is a fantastic opportunity to make the most of safe and socially distanced means of travel.
Keeping work digital
Although Kingsley Napley and many other organisations were in the process of becoming 'paper-light' before lockdown, the pandemic has certainly catalysed this transition across our firm.
Firm-wide IT training and 'Know How' guides have enabled us at Kingsley Napley to overcome the initial difficulties of a paper-light way of working; digital signatures have replaced the previous 'print, sign, and scan' process that departments previously adhered to, and more documents are being sent out electronically, which has reduced our reliance on paper and photocopiers. This new way of working will reduce our carbon footprint.
Finally, webinars and online conferences result in fewer carbon emissions and we are using them more regularly going forward. Although these can be less social than traditional meetings, they yield greater benefits for the environment, as a greater number of people can attend, whilst time, energy, and resources are saved by eradicating the need to travel to these events.
Find out more about World Environment Day on the World Environment Day website.