Climate emergency - can we learn from the COVID-19 response?

Climate emergency - can we learn from the COVID-19 response?

Share this:

By Mario Vieira, Sustainability Lead

It has been 7 weeks since we entered lockdown, and in those 7 weeks life has changed for everyone, but not in exactly the same way. It has provided us with an opportunity as individuals and society to re-evaluate what is important and essential. No doubt we will step out of lockdown into a world different from the one we had to pull ourselves out of. We can only speculate on what that will look like. I believe our response to the pandemic can tell us a lot about how we can respond to the climate emergency.

As architects and designers, our initial response to any problem is to try to use our skills and imagination to address it. This pandemic is no different in that we have seen many proposals from our industry to help(1). Ultimately though, this is a public health issue, to which our contribution can only ever be in support of a public health solution. The climate emergency, however, is a crisis in which we have a disproportionately large influence and the skills to address it head-on. 

Our role in all projects is to imagine and built a better future. This lockdown has given us the opportunity to see some of these ideas in real-time, and technology has allowed these to be shared and debated widely to the point where many of us are suffering from webinar fatigue. 

One of the positives that can be taken from the pandemic is the pace at which society has adapted. It has demonstrated that when faced with an immediate threat, drastic and rapid change is possible. Key to this being successful is trust in our leaders, clear presentation of facts and transparency in decision making. Our daily briefings from the government have always included representatives from the scientific community to explain the facts clearly. This is opposed to how politicians have dealt with the climate change, where scientists have been kept out of the public discussion. We need to ensure that experts remain at the fore as we ramp up the work required to reduce our carbon emissions. Trust in our leaders however is at an all-time low, and this has created the space for conspiracy theories about the virus to spread (2). These are important lessons to learn if we are to successfully and fairly address the climate crisis.

The pandemic has created a duality that at times is difficult to process. First and foremost this is a tragedy which has brought much pain and suffering to many, and we must never forget this in any discussions about returning to normal and making the most of any future benefits. However, we have seen many good news stories such as cleaner air in our cities and an increase in children cycling on our streets.

Lockdown has demonstrated to us that change is possible. The question now is whether these changes are permanent or temporary.

For some industries, technology has shown that geography is not a barrier, and one can imagine a permanent reduction in business travel and more remote working. The reduction of cars on our streets has seen people reclaim them for walking, cycling and even games. By all measures, the air is cleaner and we have seen many images of familiar skylines and landscapes that are no longer hidden behind a haze of smog (3). The fear is that these benefits will be short-lived and we should be asking ourselves how we can lock these in permanently.

Quick changes to road infrastructure that we have been told were not possible are happening overnight. Milan and Paris have installed cycle lanes to allow for greater social distancing between pedestrians and cyclists (4), and as I write this the UK government has announced an emergency active travel fund and fast-tracked guidance for reallocation of road space for walking and cycling (5). It will be interesting to see if these are ever removed and what opposition there will be.

Long periods of social distancing are going to have a massive impact on public transport as people look for alternatives. It would be appealing to think that people will cycle or walk, but the reality is that most are more likely to climb into their cars where they feel safe and can isolate. All the recent gains made in safer streets and cleaner air will be lost overnight. Recent scenes of whole families cycling down my street will come to an end. In the long term, reduced use of public transport could see the closure of many services.

The trend for greater remote working may also have some unexpected impacts on our cities. Fewer people and lower footfall on our street will result in many businesses becoming unviable. This may partially be offset by a revival of local high streets as people spend more time in their local areas. With people no longer having to be near the city, many may move further out creating city sprawl and the negative environmental impacts associated with that. Working from home could result in an increase in energy use and therefore carbon as we run our home heating and lighting for longer.

There has been a lot of discussion around how housing design will adapt to accommodate more flexible working. The reality is that new housing makes up a tiny proportion of the nation's homes and the real challenge is how to adapt the existing housing stock. This is no different to the challenge of retro-fitting our existing housing to address climate change, and we have yet to see a credible plan from our government to do that.

The reality is that some changes will be for the better, others worse. Our hope is that the aggregate moves us in the right direction.

As we take on these challenges, we as designers need to ensure our principle design tool is empathy. My own experience is that of an office worker, who has managed to work from home with relative ease. That is not the reality for most people, and life situations are as varied as there are people. We have seen that tragically the pandemic has hit poorer and minority communities disproportionately more than others. This again is another parallel with climate change which requires a structural change to address.

Covid-19 has shown us that when it is required, we are capable of adapting and responding at speed. To put this in perspective however, it is predicted that the shut-down of our economy will result in an 8% reduction in CO2 emissions this year (6). According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in order to keep global warming below 1.5°C, we need the same level of reduction year-on-year up to 2030 in order to hit net zero by 2050 (7). Returning to business, as usual, is therefore clearly not an option. We need to redesign not just our offices and homes, but our whole economy, and preferably to the Doughnut Economics model so clearly set out by Kate Rawthorth at last year's Architect's Declare event (8). An economy that meets the needs of all people while staying within our natural planetary boundaries. 

The climate emergency is looming over us and according to all credible predictions, the impact will be far greater than anything we have seen to date.  My hope is that the lessons learnt in this crisis prepare us for the one ahead.  We cannot say we were not warned.










Let’s make something extraordinary

You're looking for exceptional architecture. We're looking for exceptional projects. Let's start a conversation