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Reflections on lock-down from Sustainable St Albans

Has there ever been a stranger time to be an environmentalist?  The changes we have encouraged for years and years, and have been told are next-to-impossible, have happened overnight, but in an utterly unfair way.

For years, we have encouraged people to make changes in their lives to live more sustainably; to fly less, cycle more, have meetings over the internet which avoids driving, and plan their meals to reduce food waste. Suddenly, everyone is being forced to make these changes, not by the climate crisis but by the coronavirus crisis.

We have, as a nation, suddenly changed our behaviour to avoid illness, protect the vulnerable, and keep our amazing NHS running.

The climate crisis hasn’t gone away, but it has been eclipsed. And we have seen what responding to a crisis really looks like.

As environmentalists, we talk a lot about the need for a just transition; a gradual change to our economy which allows industry to create new ‘green’ jobs to replace jobs in fossil-fuel heavy industries. Instead, what is happening right now is far from gradual nor just for many. Industries mothballed overnight, and people left in financial trouble or furloughed. One local food bank has distributed more food in the last week than they normally would in a month.

Changes to Your Carbon Footprint

If you want to see the measurable impact the current crisis is having on your own carbon footprint, just try the WWF carbon footprint calculator. 

The calculator takes about 5 mins to complete. A fairly typical person (flying twice a year within Europe, driving 5-15 hours per week, wasting 10-30% of food, and buying lunches from cafes on workdays) has a footprint of 16 tonnes of CO2e.  The target for a person in 2020 is only 10.5 tonnes, so our typical person is way over. They are living unsustainably.  Of their total carbon footprint, a whopping 46% is travel

Run the WWF calculator again with a few changes, and the picture is very different. Remove the flights, reduce the driving to under 2 hours per week, lower the food waste, and stop buying from cafes, and suddenly the carbon footprint of our typical person drops to under 9 tonnes. They are now well below the 2020 target.  That’s mainly because of the reduction in travel, which now makes up only 7% of their carbon footprint.

But changes which are forced on people, rather than being positive choices they make, are unlikely to stick. Which of us isn’t thinking about where we will go, when the lock-down is lifted? At the end of this, many people will be grieving, and struggling to recover financially and emotionally.  The climate crisis will seem a long way away for them, and far down their list of concerns.

Making Changes and Maintaining Them

But perhaps for some of us, this is a chance to pause and reflect on which changes you want to maintain, when we get back to normal.


Grow Community Sopwell encouraging local residents to grow their own food

Most importantly, for now, stay home, maintain social distancing, and wash your hands (perhaps with plastic free soap!)

Catherine Ross

Trustee: Sustainable St Albans

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