Neil Harris, Professor of Atmospheric Informatics in the Centre for Environment and Agricultural Informatics at Cranfield University, comments on the implications of COVID-19 for carbon emissions, and how the crisis could provide an opportunity to advance greener ways of living and working:

The COVID-19 crisis is having a direct impact on carbon emissions by reducing industrial activity and travel. Similarly, air quality has improved markedly in the UK and around the world, which will reduce the estimated 10 million people who die prematurely each year from poor air quality. In the absence of changes in behaviour, then a rebound would be expected which broadly depended on the strength of the economic recovery: a slow recovery would reduce emissions; a bounce-back would not.

The tantalising question is whether employers and employees change their working practices and citizens change their personal ones. 

More home-working would mean reduced travel to work and a likely improvement in air quality as well as reduced carbon emissions. Greater use of online meeting capabilities (especially if they improve rapidly with rapid uptake) could reduce longer range transport including air traffic. With air traffic comprising a major part of the carbon emissions of organisations which work internationally, confidence in the productivity of online technologies could become a major part of the greenhouse gas emission strategies.

The response of government will be critical in determining the longer term impact. They could use the opportunity to advance green policies such as the development of low carbon technologies, a kind of ‘COVID-19 Green New Deal’. Or they could be short-sighted and just help businesses continue to operate as usual. 

Now could be the time, for example, to really push ahead and use the fiscal stimulus to develop a 21st century transport infrastructure to connect our regions (including, for example, short-range electric aircraft) and fully finance the measures already outlined in the Agriculture and Environment Bills. This ‘Build Back Better’ approach is being discussed by influential groups including the We Mean Business coalition and McKinsey & Company.

Society is showing how quickly it can adapt – can the momentum be maintained and used to help solve the pressing issues of air quality and climate change?

About Cranfield University

Cranfield University is a specialist postgraduate university that is a global leader for education and transformational research in technology and management.