In an instant, my life is no longer under my control. I become a little institutionalised at home, reluctant to leave a soft, comforting bed. I try to get out for exercise, but some days it just feels too hard, the world too threatening. I work a few hours a day, listless and distracted. I feel vertigo at the fragility of life – the coin toss of serious illness and death. I scroll through medical articles and social media during sleepless nights, looking for answers and comfort and distraction but finding none. I meditate to stave off the anxiety and cultivate acceptance. I carry hand sanitiser in my bag and carefully monitor myself for signs of infection. I am haunted by the beeps of the machines in the intensive care units and wards and the utter kindness and care of the NHS.
Life becomes simpler: stripped to its essentials, I gain perspective. I become more aware of my fortune, with a supportive partner and loved ones, a secure income, kind colleagues, the ability to understand medical information and statistics. I don’t know how long this time will last. The future is blank. Everything is on hold; everything is unknown.
That was 2018. I had my own practice run for the pandemic. On the 12th January, I went into UCLH for a colonoscopy – with debilitating stomach cramps and vomiting, so full of bowel prep solution they thought my colon would burst – and by the next evening I was in their Critical Care Unit following an emergency operation to remove the cancerous tumour that had so efficiently blocked my colon. I moved to the ward three days later, and after a fortnight was home, with a schedule of pills and injections that lasted until the end of the summer. Life paused, arranged into the narrow gaps between weekly appointments, terrifying symptoms, and the cycles of my concentration span and mood. I wrote about staying local.
For me, 2020 is much easier. I’m not at severe threat, although I’m being careful as my body and immune system are still a little weaker. Everyone else is in the same boat as me now when it comes to staying at home, disruption of lives, and lack of control, though – as for my cancer – I am luckier than most. For all those undergoing chemotherapy right now, I’m so sorry you have to face these multiplying threats at once.
I don’t say all this to chide the anxious. I don’t mean everyone should buckle down and not complain because some of us have had it worse. Individually and collectively, there are many ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic is far, far worse than the existential threat of cancer or other fatal illnesses: not least the exponential rise of people dying, and the utter lack of certainty. If anything, I intend it to be reassuring. Maybe this is your practice run: if you do face sudden serious illness in your future, there are ways in which it may feel easier after developing some coping mechanisms and strengthening your support networks this year. “Cancer” – the C-word – can barely even be said out loud by some people; perhaps now, we will be better at facing up to disease, and understanding what our neighbours and loved ones need.
We are so much more aware of our environment, staying local. In four walls, we are grateful for – and protective of – precious splashes of greenery and breathing city air that no longer chokes. Bird-watching from our windows and webcams. Searching for new green shoots. People have also asked me how Covid-19 will affect the global environment. I’ve just recorded an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth, talking about these issues with Tom Heap, so I thought I’d write about a few here.
Living in central London, I can now breathe deeply. Vehicles create air pollution – such as particulate matter and nitrogen oxides – from their fuel combustion, tyres and brakes, which cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and lung cancer. A week after the UK lockdown started, air quality sensors in the London Air Quality Network run by my university, King’s College London, registered such low readings they looked faulty. King’s estimate that 28,000 to 36,000 deaths in the UK each year can be attributed to long-term air pollution, compared with fewer than 2000 from road traffic accidents, while the World Health Organisation estimates that a staggering 4.2 million deaths per year worldwide are a result of outdoor air pollution: around 1 in 13 of all deaths. But notice that caveat of timescale: while cleaner air for a period of months will undoubtedly benefit people’s health, it would need long-term change to eradicate diseases caused by vehicle pollution completely. And industrial pollution, of course, still continues.
Long-term change might happen if some of our remote working habits remain. This has been an immensely challenging period for those with young children, but for those that could be at home – or need to be – there can be benefits in reducing travel and increasing flexibility.
So what effect could it have on our carbon emissions, if we stopped all work-related car journeys for good? According to the National Transport Survey, 36% of UK car mileage in 2017 was for commuting or business. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which advises the UK Government on how to reach “Net Zero” carbon emissions by 2050, states that cars (i.e. not HGVs, vans or buses) were responsible for a huge 14% of UK greenhouse gas emissions that year. That means up to 5% of our emissions – 1 in 20 tonnes – could potentially be prevented if we replaced those journeys with remote working (or low emissions journeys, such as electric vehicles or rail). The CCC assume in their main Net Zero scenario that only 10% of car miles would be replaced with public transport, walking or cycling – and do not incorporate any decrease due to videoconferencing. Of course, many of those journeys could not easily or quickly be replaced, but the question remains: should we be more ambitious?
Flights are, of course, a high profile and contentious part of reducing carbon emissions, with furious debates about both necessity and equality. In 2018, around 1 in 7 people in the UK took three or more flights, and virtually all our emissions were from international flights. But the CCC report that only 20% of flights are taken for business, so they assume there will be no reduction in demand by videoconferencing in their pathway to Net Zero. Aviation emissions are also only half those of cars: around 7% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, though their warming effect is doubled by nitrogen oxides and the clouds formed by condensation trails – now absent from our skies on these clear spring days. That means we could potentially reduce our emissions by around 1.5%, if all business flights ceased, with further savings if we reduced incoming flights for meetings held in the UK. In other words, two to three times less than the potential saving from car journeys.
Replacing travel with videoconferencing, even permanently, even globally, will never be enough to reach net zero carbon emissions and keep global warming within the limits of the Paris Agreement. But we knew that: we knew that it would take transformative change, and that means every part of our lives – our homes, food, industry – not just flights and traffic jams. We also know, though, that each dent in the total helps: especially when those dents have “co-benefits” to our quality of life and health.
On the other hand, the overall economic downturn will dent emissions further but hurt vulnerable people worldwide. Some have hoped we can try and make something good for people and planet come from this terrible, terrible tragedy; some have articulated this desire thoughtfully, others clumsily. It is important to note too that, like travel, a short-term decrease in emissions would only have a substantial impact on the climate if it were the seed of a persistent change. Global oil demand fell last month by up to 20%, a historic low, but estimates of the impact on 2020 carbon emissions vary widely: a decrease between 0.5% and 5% (rather than the usual annual increase of about 1%). The 2008 recession led to a 1.5% decrease but emissions quickly bounced back to business-as-usual. Persistent change might come about if we are able to design economic relief and stimulus packages with the co-benefits of low carbon transition in mind. One thing that concerns me is that such decisions will be made by the fortunate: those less burdened by illness and caring duties, insecure income and housing, poor health care. As ever, a fair future needs fair decision-making to bring it about.
Will our responses to this pandemic prepare us in any sense for the global co-operation, political leadership informed by science, and transformative will needed to act on climate change? Or will it confirm and amplify the challenges, with our human frailties and inequalities, our susceptibility to conspiracy and mistrust and selfishness, the damage done to economic systems we take for granted? James Murray articulated these opposites and contradictions clearly – if pessimistically – in his article on the myth of silver linings. In any case, it is right to postpone November’s climate negotiations (COP26) to 2021, so we can focus on saving lives now then slowly rebuild.
One thing is certain: the future will be both better and worse than we imagine. We see this already – in our communities and politicians – that the pandemic brings out the best and worst in us. The balance between the two is the sum of our choices. We cannot control our lives under lockdown, but we can bring food to our neighbour who cannot leave her home. We cannot make the future more certain, but we can make it more bearable for those in need. We cannot take away the fear, but we can support those who must face that fear most directly. We can nurture seeds of hope, and use this time as a practice run for being more human.