The COVID-19 pandemic is a health and economic crisis with the death toll in the UK surpassing 30,000 (BBC, 2020) and still rising. We are still in the eye of the storm, and no one knows when these restrictions on our lives can safely be eased, but what can be said is the changes that have been made during this crisis seemed verging on impossible pre-corona. Over the past couple of months – during a lockdown never previously seen – planes, trains, cars and people have been grounded and their movement ceased. This undoubtedly caused huge financial strain on the respective owners, and resulted in some industries becoming nationalised and others pleading for massive bailouts. The crisis has been a catalyst in greening aviation and rail, and encouraging zero emission personal travel by persuading people to walk and cycle.
This is a crucial political moment, and one we must understand to utilise it’s full power over the most polluting industries.
If not now, when?
Aviation companies have long avoided calls to restrict their carbon pollution as governments protect them to remain competitive – the sector largely avoided fuel tax in most countries and got a free ride in emission reduction and contribution to public revenue (Watts, 2020). During this crisis the sector has been hit hard which has led to many aviation companies appealing for taxpayer support – according to the Greenpeace, Transport & Environment, and Carbon Market Watch tracker, European governments have currently agreed €12.7bn in bailouts (Carbon Market Watch, 2020).
If public funds are to be used to bailout one of the most polluting sectors in the world, the public should see some rewards in the form of environmental benefits. We now have the power to reduce the emissions of the sector, prevent frequent flyer levies and significantly reduce the number of short flights which currently compete with rail journeys. As demonstrated by France when they set strong environmental conditions for the bailout to slash domestic flights and commit to becoming the “greenest airline in the world” (Cirium, 2020).
In the railway sector, decisions previously thought impossible under current Prime Minister Boris Johnson have been made. The crisis has seen the UK partially renationalise the railways – passenger rail has been taken over by the government, only rail freight remains in commercial hands (Department for Transport, 2020). This could be crucial in the move towards a sustainable future, done in conjunction with reduced domestic and intra-continental flights it can make rail journeys undeniably the best choice for short-duration travel.
Another positive change for the environmental movement is the encouragement of walking or cycling to work. In the UK over the past decade, the attempts to get people making the healthier choice has been minimal, with widespread anecdotal evidence showing that council’s around the UK have installed cycle lanes as short as 2m and then totalled multiple of these up to achieve targets. Moreover, the on-going pandemic and fear over a second wave has led to the installation of safe walking and cycle routes becoming a top priority in the plan to ease lockdown and keep citizens safe. This crisis is pushing funding towards greener ways to travel with a £250m investment in cycling infrastructure announced, and an additional National Cycling Plan to be released in June with a Cycling and Walking commissioner (Stone, 2020). The pandemic has increased the speed and efficacy of greener policies which environmentalists have been proponents of and pushed for over the past decade, and whether or not these policies are passed to reduce our emissions, indirectly or directly it will green our transport system.
This quote from Milton Friedman seems very apt:
“Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable” (Milton Friedman, no date).
These ideas are lying around because environmentalists and scientists have pushed for climate change to be on the agenda for many years, and creating a greener transport system to reduce emissions is a top priority. This crisis is the catalyst that puts these greener practices into our transport sector. I believe it is a coincidental silver lining that measures vital to suppressing the corona virus cases will also re-structure our transport system in a greener way. These changes are healthier for people – in and out of a pandemic – and healthier for our environment.
BBC, 2020. Coronavirus: UK becomes first country in Europe to pass 30,000 deaths. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-52564183
Carbon Market Watch, 2020. Polluting European Airlines Seek Billions and Counting in Bailouts. Available at: https://carbonmarketwatch.org/2020/04/22/polluting-european-airlines-seek-e12-8-bn-and-counting-in-bailouts/
Cirium, 2020. French Government Sets Green Conditions For Air France Bailout. Available at: https://www.flightglobal.com/strategy/french-government-sets-green-conditions-for-air-france-bailout/138160.article
Department for Transport, 2020. Reduced Rail Timetable Agreed To Protect Train Services and Staff. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/reduced-rail-timetable-agreed-to-protect-train-services-and-staff
Evans, 2011. Sustainable Transport. Available at: http://www.earthtimes.org/encyclopaedia/environmental-issues/sustainable-transport/
Stone, 2020. Call for cycling states to be added to daily corona virus transport figures. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/cycling-coronavirus-public-transport-cycle-lanes-bike-a9522856.html
Milton Friedman, no date. Only A Crisis, Actual or Perceived, Produces Real Change. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/110844-only-a-crisis—actual-or-perceived—produces-real
Watts, 2020. Is Covid-19 Crisis The Catalyst For The Greening of Worlds Airlines. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/17/is-covid-19-crisis-the-catalyst-for-the-greening-of-worlds-airlines