Knowledge for a sustainable world

Conor Walsh, Environmental Scientist, NRI |

What constitutes a global crisis? What differentiates it from a national or regional problem? By definition, a pandemic reflects a threat to human health that transcends territorial and jurisdictional boundaries. Ironically, the collective response to COVID-19 serves as a severing of the connections afforded by transit and free movements whilst simultaneously presenting a shared experience for many (and a set of practices that are shared by a substantial amount of people in many countries).

Notwithstanding, changes to the quotidian may be vastly different for many people in lower and middle-income countries. Numerous studies have demonstrated the extent to which wealthy consumers are responsible for the larger proportion of global carbon emissions, in particular in relation to emissions due to transport [1].

Given the pronounced risk to human health, it is profoundly unethical to frame the narrative of the spread of the Coronavirus as having a “silver lining.” However, we cannot ignore that the choices we as consumers are now being forced to make, will have an impact on the wider economic and energy system, including market signals. For example, several media outlets have conveyed the dramatic images of all but empty airports, which have now relinquished the frantic and stressful pace of transit and human behaviour we normally associate with international travel [2].

For those of us who are given the space and time resulting from a reorientation of our consumption activities, perhaps we can use this period to reflect on whether we as an economy and a society are ultimately more fulfilled by the extent of our discretionary transport demand and mobility. What we are undergoing is indeed an experiment of sorts. Can we imagine developing a series of practices that affords us the same sense of wellbeing without the frantic pace attendant to modern consumption? It is hoped the risk of the coronavirus will abate in time, as opposed to the long-term risk to human health associated with climate shocks, for which the vast majority of people will not have the option of self-isolation as a means of risk mitigation.

[1] Sager, L., 2019. Income inequality and carbon consumption: Evidence from Environmental Engel curves. Energy Economics, p.104507.

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