A pollution-free window into the future?

The “silly season” stories – as some on newspapers call them – usually start in June, when the studies that “state the bleedin’ orbvious” clog up the inbox. The studies reveal what we already knew – had we been bothered to stop and think about it.

The phenomenon came to mind via a Guardian headline this week: “Disbelief in big cities as pollution falls”, caused by coronavirus lockdown.

In fairness, the national news outlet which actively seeks out the environmental angle, was merely quoting residents in Delhi, remarking in their WhatsApp group how clean the air was (positively Alpine), without all that pesky polluting traffic.

The series of “before and after” pictures put together by the Guardian showed just how the air had cleared up in a matter of weeks since lockdown began on March 24.

Lung-infecting toxicity had given way to clear blue skies and clean air for residents to enjoy. If they hadn’t been confined to their homes.

Even by the end of last month pollution levels in Rome, Milan, Paris and our very own London had dropped significantly as people began lockdown, according to the Daily Mail, another outlet which likes an environmental story. Harry and Meghan won’t have read it, but Harry’s father, the environmentally conscious Prince Charles, will have savoured every word – and probably written to Government about it already.

Oil prices falling shouldn’t be a shock either, with fewer people using their cars. An 18-year low resulted in negative oil prices on Monday. Locally, petrol seems to be close to 110p a litre, down from at least 119p.

It’s reasonable to ask, then, how will we emerge, eyes blinking, into the bright light of a post-Covid-19 era? Will we take any more notice of our planet’s needs? Will we strive to strip back all those polluting habits and try to live a cleaner, more environmentally friendly life?

While I say there are fewer cars about, that doesn’t mean there are none. A daily attempt to cross the A23 to Earlswood Common still means a wait at the road for traffic to pass.

Once we exit our enforced semi-hibernation, will we suddenly all jump on public transport as a “greener” alternative? Will we heck!  Sitting on a packed bus or train in rush hour will seem an unnecessary risk unless we are immunised against Covid-19. We don’t know whether it will return and how strongly. Furthermore, we have become used to the car, even before Covid-19.

But surely cleaner cities are worth striving for? Surely, the dream must be that all vehicles are electric, not petrol or diesel, recharged at our EV points at our homes, where energy is powered by solar panels (our own or community owned)? One thing we can all do is buy our household fuel from a company, or part of a company, that only uses 100% renewable sources.

For those considering buying solar panels now, feed-in-tariffs have given way to something called a Smart Export Guarantee, allowing sales to the grid, but it will take many years to recoup a probable £6,000 outlay to include the crucial storage unit to make it worth your while.

Vehicles using “gas”, as the Americans call it, are one thing. Some companies are taking notice, using fully electric vehicles (EV), or hybrid gas and electric.  But while society could make cities cleaner by using electric vehicles and generating that electricity themselves, use of “gas” is not so easy to solve. Central heating, for example, tends to be powered by gas. It heats a home quicker than the electric alternative and is cheaper to install and run. And if gas is used less, it will become even cheaper.

Only when market forces dictate that the consumer is using so little gas will the production decrease. Yet we already have the perfect trajectory to build on, as we take stock during our lockdown down time.

In the third financial quarter of 2019, renewables generated more electricity than fossil fuels for the first time.

This was a “symbolic milestone” said the Carbon Brief report. The total for the quarter was about 40% of energy from renewables – solar, wind, biomass – a huge rise from about 7% in 2010. Coal as a percentage is now minimal, about 1%. Nuclear accounted for 20%. Carbon Brief analysis says that CO2 emissions reduced by 29% in a decade, from 2010.

Will we think more about our personal carbon footprint? We are likely to stampede to our friends and relatives to “catch up” after the coronavirus crisis. Most of our loved ones live too far for us to walk or cycle. We’ll be back in our cars.

In business, however, we might take a more considered approach. Companies – and their employees – have discovered they can work from home. Efficiently. And be trusted to do so. We could travel on those packed rush hour trains to London less frequently, but that only helps us as humans to save time and money and to minimise the germ risk. All those meetings? We can do them by zoom. And it only saves us money, of course, if we can do so infrequently enough to “save” against the cost of a season ticket.

The isolation wouldn’t necessarily help our mental health: humans are interactive creatures who feed off gossip, banter and relationships with others. And with the trains over packed as they are, they will still run. It wouldn’t save any fuel, unless a huge number of people decided not to use them. Maybe a post-coronavirus world will affect flying more than trains as people have international conferences over new technologies?

But could it be that Covid-19 has taught us to appreciate all those finer things in life, the work-life balance, the routes of our daily walks, the benefits of not forever rushing round in what seems like circles, the stresses of the commute and wasted time. Maybe there’s a correlation between stripping out the pollutants in our own lives and stripping out those in our cities.

This is surely a wake-up call to deal with the bigger picture of the environment. It’s just possible that people will realise they are better off with cleaner air and demand manufacturers behind the causes of existing pollution take steps to peer through those dirt-strewn curtains and imagine a blue sky vision. The temporarily pollution-free cities teach us everything we need to know about our future.