Extinction Rebellion: in retreat?
Image: Vladmir Morozov 2019
Eirwen Abberley discusses how COVID-19 has hindered the Extinction Rebellion movement at a crucial time
Experts worldwide have voiced concerns about how the climate change campaign has been damaged by COVID-19. To the dismay of many scientists, environmentalists and climate activists, it seems to have taken a backseat during the pandemic. Sir David Attenborough has spoken out about his fears over the effect of the pandemic on environmental issues, as the rush to contain the spread of the virus has taken the focus away from climate change. Attenborough’s 2020 documentary A Life on our Planet tracks the shocking loss of biodiversity and habitat which has occurred during his lifetime and emphasises the urgent need to repair the damage that we have caused before the earth reaches its tipping point. Several international climate conferences have had to be cancelled because of COVID-19, which in turn means a delay in the action needed to force countries to reduce their CO2 emissions.
Prior to COVID, progress was finally being made towards a more sustainable future. The University declared an environment and climate emergency in May 2019 and has taken several steps to commit to being greener, becoming the winner of the Guardian’s Sustainability Award that year. Our ‘white paper’ can be found online, detailing all of our goals and commitments, including the aim to become carbon neutral by 2040. All single-use, non-recyclable cups and boxes have been removed from campus; wildflower meadows and trees have been planted, and the University has stopped investing in fossil fuel companies. Although in theory the changes are still ongoing, these decisions were made before the pandemic and it would be fair to say that momentum has slowed down as a result.
Moreover, there is an argument to be made that the issue never received the attention it deserved prior to the virus. Extinction Rebellion, a global movement which has been campaigning for action to be taken against the threats posed by global warming (rising sea levels, increasing global hunger and severe loss of biodiversity to name a few), still faces much resistance from the government. On 12 December, two XR members were arrested after a group blocked access to a Ministry of Defence site near Bristol in an attempt to push governments towards drastic action. Although the new vaccine offers hope for a return to normalcy, there is clearly a major shift in governmental priority required before the environment can finally take centre-stage
It is only the beginning
Despite this, plans for the future are still slowly moving ahead worldwide as people come to terms with the extent of the threat. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, America’s CO2 emissions compile 15 per cent of the world’s (second only to China). Joe Biden has vowed that one of his first acts as President will be to re-enter the Paris Climate Accord—the international pact to reduce global emissions which Trump withdrew from in 2017; a hopeful change that has emerged despite of the virus.
In the UK, the government is poised to move its ban on new fossil fuel-powered vehicles to 2030. While this small commitment is evidence that environmental issues have not been completely neglected, it is only the beginning.
Many scientists have identified how the pandemic has had a positive impact on the environment; but this seems to present a further threat. The reduced activity of businesses, airlines and individual people has reduced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide is brilliant. The levels of pollution in New York, for example, are nearly 50 per cent lower than they were last year before the virus hit. Famously, for the first time in years the canals of Venice are running clear – fish can even be seen in the water. Is it possible, then, that the pandemic has shown us that it is possible to make drastic changes to reduce our emissions? David Attenborough does not seem to think so. As Martha Henriques in the BBC puts it, “A global pandemic that is claiming people’s lives certainly shouldn’t be seen as a way of bringing about environmental change either.” It is important that these positive reductions do not cause countries to become complacent, and neglect the decisions needed to allow for greener living in the long-term. While there has been a global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions during lockdown (daily CO2 emissions fell by 17 per cent at the peak of the pandemic), scientists predict that the global temperature in 2030 will only be 0.01°C lower than previously thought. Now, more than ever, there is a need to put pressure on governments to reduce and reverse the impacts of climate change; it cannot be allowed to be trampled down by the immediacy of COVID.