Harnessing environmental change after COVID-19

21.04.2020 3 min read

The COVID-19 lockdown in the UK has brought about a substantial reduction in air, road and rail travel and road traffic is at its lowest level in 65 years, according to some estimates. As a result, we have been enjoying much better air quality* and carbon emissions have been dropping. Away from these shores, global cities which continually register dangerously high pollution levels, such as New Delhi, Bangkok and São Paolo, have clear skies for the first time in years.

While outdoor access to these cities is limited due to worldwide restrictions, we are currently allowed out to exercise in the UK. As a passionate cyclist, I have taken advantage of riding on the quiet roads almost every day. I have been reminded of the delightful 1956 film Cyclists Special in the BFI archives, where droves of cyclists spend the day in near-traffic-free countryside around Rugby. When I first watched this, I found myself wishing one day to be able to discover a similar cycling experience – perhaps with less tweed – and here it is: euphoria in the dystopia.

This pandemic has created opportunities for long-lasting change. Once the lockdowns are eased and governments start to rebuild economies, will we accept our towns and cities operating as they once did? The addictive hold of normality has been broken; city centres have accidentally been repurposed around walkers, runners and cyclists; working from home is the new normal.

It is apposite that DfT launched a public consultation on plans for decarbonising transport at the end of March. Transport Minister Grant Shapps says in the foreword, “Public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities. We will use our cars less.” This is hard to reconcile against Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s budget commitment to spend £27 billion on road-building and the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto commitment of just £350 million (£1.18 per person per year) on cycling infrastructure. As one commentator put it: “We Must Use Cars Less, says UK Transport Secretary Planning To Splash £27 Billion On New Roads”.

At the time of publication, the intention was to unveil the UK’s transport decarbonisation plan at COP26, now postponed due to COVID-19, the plan will be very low on the government’s priorities and spending plans have naturally gone out of the window. However, an opportunity for change has emerged. The Dutch, famous for their cycling infrastructure and two-wheel-friendly lifestyles, only began to challenge the primacy of the motor car in the 1970s, thanks to the success of the Stop de Kindermoord movement and of trials closing city centres to traffic at weekends.

Lockdown has given us an insight into what we need to work towards to meet emissions targets and air quality standards.  Now we need the infrastructure and policy shifts to repurpose UK towns and cities for people. All of us currently enjoying our quieter, cleaner, safer city streets can have a say in making them more permanent by asking our politicians for ambitious changes in favour of zero-emission active travel. Do we want cargo bikes, e-bikes, e-scooters and pedestrians, or will we settle once again for more cars, vans and lorries?

* The Institute of Air Quality Management rightly emphasises the need for caution with short-term analyses. Ratification of provisional monitoring data can take some months, and short-term trends are often confounded by meteorology and other factors. Nonetheless, numerous examples indicate large reductions in pollution levels since lockdown, eg CERC analysis in London and  those outlined in this article by Professor Paul Monks

Key Contacts

Dr Xiangyu Sheng Director - Air Quality, Climate & Carbon