So far, discussions of a coronavirus exit strategy have mainly focused on the steps that could bring an end to the lockdown. In the short term, both in the UK and elsewhere, there is nothing more desirable than letting people resume their lives, once it is safe to do so.
But the speed of the “return to normal” is not the only thing that matters. The manner in which the world’s leaders manage the colossal economic and political shocks caused by the virus is also of the utmost importance. And at the top of their list of priorities, alongside human welfare, must be the biosphere and its future.
It’s too soon to say with any confidence what impact coronavirus will have on the climate emergency. The brakes placed on economic activities of many kinds, worldwide, have led to carbon emission cuts that would previously have been unthinkable: 18% in China between February and March; between 40% and 60% over recent weeks in Europe. Habits and behaviours once regarded as sacrosanct have been turned on their heads: road traffic in the UK has fallen by 70%. Global air traffic has halved. Meanwhile, a much-needed spotlight has been thrown on humans’ troubling relationship to wildlife, with some experts arguing that the degradation of the natural world and exploitation of other species is among the pandemic’s causes.
In human terms, the economic contraction precipitated by the virus – and predicted by the World Bank to lead to a severe depression – is sure to be brutal. No one, and least of all an elected government, would have chosen to limit emissions in this way. But if further savage waves of destruction to people’s livelihoods are to be avoided, rather than simply stored up or ignored until they become unignorable, just as coronavirus was, every possible effort must now be made to ensure that the recovery, when it comes, is as green as possible; that any and every stimulus package is directed towards renewable energy and zero- or low-carbon infrastructure and transport.
The urgency and desperation surrounding all such efforts are likely to militate against progressive measures. Already, governments are coming under huge pressure to bail out oil and gas companies (in the US and Canada this has already begun). But while in the short term the low oil price, which is also the result of a price war being waged by Saudi Arabia and Russia, could have the damaging effect of making oil more competitive against renewables, plunging demand and turmoil in the industry provide an opportunity that must be seized by all who oppose the continued dominance of fossil fuels.
There are other questions besides the future of oil that the crisis has opened up in unexpected ways. Huge political shifts are under way, with fiscally conservative governments such as Boris Johnson’s intervening in economies to an unprecedented extent. What was once impossible (socialist, reckless) now turns out not to be, at all. Could the renewed shock of human vulnerability in the face of Covid-19 make way for an increased willingness to face other perils, climate chaos among them?
Impossible to say at this stage, perhaps. Certainly not without a fight against all those who will promote a return to business (and emissions) as usual. But with the postponement of crucial UN biodiversity and climate conferences, it has never been more important to keep up the pressure. There is no exit strategy from our planet.