By Emily Passmore
At the beginning of the year, it was easy to believe that 2020 would only see the zero-waste movement get stronger. After all, in the UK, 2019 saw commitments from ever more high street retailers, including major supermarkets such as Tesco and Morrisons, to cut down on their plastic usage. Furthermore, polling suggested half of Brits would be happy to pay more for a product if its packaging was eco-friendly. A similar pattern emerged globally, with Canada aiming to ban single-use plastics by 2021, and Peru banning single-use plastic at heritage sites.
Progress may have been slow, perhaps even dangerously slow, but progress was being made. In the time of coronavirus, that is no longer necessarily true.
The zero-waste movement strives towards a circular economy, where (almost) everything is reused rather than disposed. This means refillable packaging, repaired clothing and--for dedicated proponents of the lifestyle--a year’s worth of rubbish fitting into a single mason jar. But coronavirus can be spread through tiny droplets released from coughs and sneezes, and if a surface is contaminated by these droplets, anyone touching that surface is at risk. Reusable goods and containers might be handled by members of different households, and so are a clear example of potentially infected surfaces which could help spread the virus further.
Is it justifiable to continue promoting reusable goods during this pandemic? For the high street, the answer appears to be no. Schemes allowing customers to bring their own cups at stores such as Pret A Manger and Starbucks have been suspended since the early stages of the pandemic. This week, the US state of New Hampshire even banned the use of reusable shopping bags, a reversal of the usual trend towards banning single use plastic bags.
However, it is not clear just how necessary these steps are, given that an alcohol-based disinfectant will inactivate coronavirus within a minute, eliminating the risk posed by reusable goods. On the other hand, this process is itself likely to create waste, considering the environmental harm that can be caused by chemical production, as well as the fact that disinfectant tends to be packaged in disposable plastic containers. Moreover, this process requires a level of personal responsibility--it’s far from guaranteed that everyone would remember to disinfect, or more importantly, that everyone has access to the correct equipment to disinfect with. Single use plastic does not pose the same challenge.
It also does not guarantee sterility though. Plastic is handled throughout the production process, by an undetermined number of unknown people. Thus, it would be best practise to disinfect single use bags as well--especially as recent studies suggest Covid-19 can remain stable on plastic for up to three days. No similar research has been conducted on reusable bags, so it is impossible to truly know if the bans are warranted.
Nevertheless, single use plastic projects the illusion of sterility – and in a crisis where so much is uncertain, this should not be dismissed out of hand. Although regulations banning reusables may not be fully supported by scientific evidence, decisive regulation could help to quell public panic.
But is this a fair trade-off? The pandemic will end, and when it does, decisions such as the bans on reusable bags could have a lasting impact, stalling progress towards a circular economy. Some right-wing think tanks certainly seem to have this possibility in mind. Bans in the US were preceded by a lobbying campaign by organisations including the Manhattan Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Both groups accept money from fossil fuel companies, and both groups misrepresented the scientific research in their lobbying efforts. It doesn’t seem outlandish to suggest they may be more concerned with turning the tide on environmental policy than with public health.
This highlights the main issue the pandemic raises for the zero-waste movement: environmental concerns must take a back seat to urgent public health issues to some degree, but it is unclear exactly how much they should be discounted. Take clinical waste. Hospitals in Wuhan, the site of the first outbreak, generated six times as much waste at the peak of the virus compared to normal operations. The daily output was about 240 metric tons, about the weight of a blue whale, and a whole new waste plant had to be built to process it. But reusing medical equipment is impossible, and saving lives is clearly far more important in the short term than reducing waste production.
Single use bags do not carry the same importance--but should we not accept some uncomfortable policy decisions in the face of this public health emergency? To some degree, yes. But there is evidence that opponents of the environmental movement are using this moment to further their aims. A complete abandonment of the principles of the zero-waste movement seems an overreaction, and tactically unwise. Containing coronavirus must be the principal concern at the moment, but eventually, a vaccine will be developed and it will cease to be a concern at all. There seems to be no reason to renounce a zero-waste, circular economy as a goal to be strived towards, and no scientific backing to the suggestion that reusables are categorically less sterile than single use items. Thus, while coronavirus is undoubtedly a challenge to the zero-waste movement, as long as proponents take a compassionate but evidence-based standpoint throughout the crisis, it need not be the end of it.
By Olivia Oldham
As the world grinds to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it's easy to think that this has to be a good thing for the climate. And certainly, there are plenty of positive consequences of the virus for the environment.
There's the dramatic impact that this is having on the air-travel industry (a 4.3% decline in global air travel in February), and travel more generally as people around the world are encouraged (or required by law) to stay home. Plus, the strong coupling of economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions means that a global slow-down of the economy could lead to a fall in emissions. In China, the lockdown over recent weeks has led to a 25% reduction in energy use and emissions over two weeks compared to previous years.
But unfortunately the news isn't all positive. The disruptions caused by the virus aren't discriminating based on the climate. So while the tumbling price of oil (which has fallen by about 25% this month, the largest drop in nearly 30 years!) might mean the end for a number of smaller oil companies, even this might have negative environmental consequences, if the bankrupted companies walk away from their oil wells, leaving them unplugged and leaking methane, all while relying on the state to pay for clean-up.
And while short-term declines in emissions are positive, they won't mean much for the climate unless they lead to broader, long-term changes to the way society operates. Could remote working, teleconferences and avoiding air travel become the new normal?
A number of negative climate-related impacts are or may come about as a result of coronavirus and it’s widespread, long-lasting impacts on global society.
The market for renewables
The falling share-market and crashing global economy are not only affecting GHG-intensive industries, they are also impacting the market for renewables. Factories in China which produce critical components of wind turbines and solar panels have shut down production due to the virus. A new report issued Friday 13 March dialled back its prediction for the growth of global solar energy capacity this year from 121-152 gigawatts to only 108-143 gigawatts, which (if it plays out) will be the first dip in solar capacity additions globally since the 1980s.
Interfering with research
Coronavirus is interfering with critical climate research. To give just one example, three NASA science campaigns which were meant to take place in the United States this spring have had to reschedule their data collection flights until later in the year, or in one case possibly for several years. These missions were meant to have collected data related to climate, and the dynamics and impacts of climate change.
Delaying legislation and regulation
In the United States, a climate action framework, which a bipartisan group in the House of Representatives had been working on for a year, was due to be released at the end of March. Instead, the release will be pushed back due to COVID-19. Meanwhile, the German government used a meeting which had been intended to deal with issues around renewable energy in the country to discuss the COVID-19 outbreak instead. There is also growing concern that COP26 in Glasgow will be derailed by the outbreak.
Before we start rejoicing at the fall in emissions due to the COVID-related economic slow-down, and the shut-down of high-emitting industries, we should remember that these processes have a huge impact on peoples' lives. As Gernot Wagner, a clinical associate professor at the Department of Environmental Studies at New York University points out, the drop in emissions in China are coming about because of a situation in which people are dying. And while the end of fossil fuel extraction is our goal, do we really want that to happen in a way that means hundreds of thousands of workers in the fossil fuel industry (and industries totally reliant upon fossil fuels, such as the airline industry) are left unemployed, with no social or economic support, and no alternative employment?
Should we be celebrating and encouraging an image of a net-zero carbon world that more or less requires the widespread disruption of society through lock-downs, death, loss of livelihoods, exacerbation of food insecurity and inequality, and protracted separations from loved ones? Should we promote a path to net-zero which comes at the expense of all those who are most vulnerable in our societies—the elderly, those with pre-existing health conditions, those in economically precarious situations, the homeless? It seems counterproductive to give those individuals and institutions who are already unwilling to make large-scale social and economic changes to address climate change yet another reason to drag their feet.
While there might be some lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic about how quickly governments really can respond to a crisis when they recognise it as one, what this situation really demonstrates is the importance of dealing with climate change in a way which fundamentally promotes social justice and the protection of vulnerable members of society.
By Emily Passmore
Plans for a third runway at Heathrow have always been controversial. However, last week, they were stopped once and for all by a ruling from the court of appeal. The plans were ruled illegal for not complying with the UK government’s commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 (as set out in the Paris Agreement).
This is the first case to be based around the agreement and has widely been seen as a huge boost to the commitments contained within it. It demonstrates how legal cases not only reinforce the fact climate change is a major issue, but ensure that commitments to tackle it are not merely pledged, but enforced. Whilst the case is overall a positive development, it does highlight some limitations of climate litigation addressed at the end of the article.
The case is part of a wider growth in climate change litigation. Since 1990, over 1300 legal cases have been brought worldwide concerning climate change, and 57 of these have been in the UK. Often, these have been fought by environmental legal charities; the Heathrow case was fought by Plan B, whilst Client Earth have won three cases protesting government inaction on air pollution.
Whilst many cases are based on existing legislation, or planned legislation, some attempt to set new precedents instead. In Colombia, the Supreme Court ruled that the Amazon has the same legal rights as a human being so is entitled to protection and conservation. It ordered the government to draw up action plans within four months to uphold this ruling. Furthermore, in the Netherlands, the Supreme Court upheld a decision stating that the government had a constitutional duty to protect its citizens from climate change, and thus must reduce emissions by at least 25% compared to 1990 by the end of 2020.
The prevalence and success of these cases is a good sign for the climate movement as a whole; they signal an increasingly popular concern to make climate change mitigation a necessity, not a voluntary action. Five judicial reviews of the third Heathrow runway were thrown out in 2018 – success in 2020 suggests a shift in opinion from the courts that bodes well for future cases. This is likely a sign of shifting public opinion as well, as the courts would be unlikely to rule on the issue if they thought nobody cared about it.
It particularly paves the way for cases based around maintaining the commitments set out in the Paris Agreement. This established a maximum target of 2⁰C warming and required governments to set out plans for how this goal could be achieved. At the upcoming COP26, these plans should be strengthened, thus making the court’s respect for the plans even more important for ensuring they are executed.
The case may also act as a deterrent to the government, encouraging them to rethink plans that go against the Paris agreement’s commitments. The legal process not only exposes the government to public scrutiny but also drains the government’s time and resources. Even if the government wins a case, environmental charities have tend to bring cases back and thus drag out the process further. Being environmentally responsible at the stage of initial policy planning therefore becomes the new shortcut.
However, court cases can only act as a deterrent if the decisions they make actually hold. As previously mentioned, Client Earth has won three cases against the government over air pollution – the second and third cases were brought because the ruling from the first was ignored. Although the third case gave the court the power to veto unsatisfactory plans concerning air pollution without the need for a court case, the process has been very long, and is still yet to yield concrete results for reducing air pollution.
This is even more relevant for cases not based around existing policy or legislation. Creating new environmental rights is brilliant for showing a commitment to fighting climate change, but there is no precedent for how such rights should be established or protected. Thus, it is very easy for the rulings to be watered down and ignored, reduced to a symbolic gesture.
It is also important to consider the context in which decisions are being made. The third runway at Heathrow has always been a controversial policy and was inconvenient for the government to implement, regardless of its environmental impacts. Thus, there was far less time and effort put into defending the policy than there would be if a popular policy was challenged on environmental grounds. The test of climate change litigation’s effectiveness is if firm government commitments can be challenged and brought down through the courts. We are yet to see a case such as this in the UK.
This highlights the limitations of climate change litigation as a strategy; it is all still very tentative and unproven. Although the judgments passed so far have been excellent for the climate movement in theory, there are still many issues with implementing them in practice. It seems likely these issues could be resolved, particularly around reinforcing existing legislation; as climate change litigation becomes more common, it will become more costly to ignore judgments, as the risk of being taken back to court will rise.
However, we don’t have infinite time and resources - we need to fight climate change now. This means using litigation as part of a wider movement of activism, adjusting its use as its strengths and weaknesses become clearer. Pursuing cases such as that of the third runway at Heathrow seems a good way to go about this, as it achieves a definite and overwhelmingly positive policy change that would be incredibly difficult to achieve any other way.
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.