Lockdowns may lead to greener lives but they don't solve the climate crisis

Stephen King
·4-min read

My daughter tells me that, although her asthma has been much better this year than in previous years, she’s been suffering a little more in recent weeks.

Admittedly, we’re at the peak of the hay fever season and the King family doesn’t live a million miles from the north London savannah otherwise known as Hampstead Heath.

Hay fever, however, hasn’t been my daughter’s primary problem. She thinks her asthma experiences this year have more to do with the absence of London traffic during lockdown and, more recently, its gradual return.

Certainly, the data tally with her personal experience. According to LondonAir, the public face of the Environmental Research Group from King’s College, London, levels of nitrogen dioxide along the Marylebone Road are now heading back up, having fallen dramatically towards the end of March.

We’re not yet back to the “bad old days”, not least because the congestion charge is even more financially painful than it was before Covid-19. Still, for those with deep pockets, a virus-fuelled fear of public transport and an inability to work from home, the car still has its attractions, much to the irritation of asthma sufferers across the capital.

Even though satellite imagery showed coal-fired power stations being turned off in China earlier in the year and people from Jalandhar said they could see the Himalayas for the first time in three decades, there’s no real evidence to suggest that lockdowns have had any kind of significant effect on climate change. Weekly data from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii suggest that carbon dioxide levels continue to rise on a seemingly inexorable basis.

Meanwhile, falls in nitrogen dioxide have been accompanied — from Marylebone to Mumbai — by increases in harmful ozone, suggesting that lockdowns are not, in themselves, the answer to our gaseous problems. It’s possible that we will learn from the lockdowns how to live “greener” lives: more staycations, fewer business class flights to distant lands, more working from home and less driving to work.

The UK might as well make infrastructure projects as green as possible but it can’t solve a global crisis alone

Yet the scenes from Bournemouth last week and evidence from OpenTable that German restaurant bookings have returned to pre-virus levels suggest that many of us just want the whole Covid-19 nightmare to end. We want to go back to our lives as they once were.

If so, the world’s climate problems are still a long way from being solved. True, if lockdowns lead to economic scarring in the form of higher unemployment, lower levels of activity and slower growth rates — the pace at which the Earth warms up might slow a bit.

But you’ll struggle to find a politician who would regard this as any kind of victory: scarring, after all, is more likely to hit the young and the vulnerable, adding to the inequalities that already are contributing to instability. Indeed, most leaders are now focused on minimising scarring as much as they possibly can, with Boris Johnson this week announcing a £1 billion schools building project in a bid to distance himself from the austerity of his predecessors and other European leaders keen to rekindle what’s left of the summer holiday season.

Admittedly, if the UK is going down the infrastructure path, it might as well make the journey as green as possible. The electricity grid needs far more capacity for all those extra charging points that will come with the electric car revolution. And the electricity itself has to come increasingly from renewable sources (to be fair, the UK has already moved rapidly in the right direction).

On its own, however, the UK cannot solve a global crisis. It would have been nice to think that Covid-19 would have been the catalyst to force a global meeting of minds. Instead, the World Health Organisation has become a geopolitical football, blamed for being too kind to China and, as a result, losing its US funding. It’s all uncannily reminiscent of the American withdrawal in 2017 from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Maybe, however, the US will eventually abandon its increasingly isolationist stance. As Covid-19 infection rates surge in Texas, California, Georgia, Arizona and Florida, perhaps Washington will recognise that it may be better to work with, rather than against, the rest of the world to minimise threats that we now know have no respect for sovereign borders nor, for that matter, state lines.

Stephen King (@kingeconomist) is HSBC’s senior economic adviser and author of Grave New World (Yale)