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Earth Day 2020: A Sobering 50th Anniversary

Tom Greatrex

22 April 2020

Photo by Porapak Apichodilok on pexels.com

Marking the 50th anniversary of Earth Day—when, in normal times, a call for people to notice the environment around us and how we treat it gets a little traction—is somewhat incongruous when the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and consequent lockdown have given us all much to ponder.

Writing this from home, the sky is clear and I can hear birdsong, there are no planes above and no traffic on the roads around me. Sheep and goats are wandering through towns, rare birds are nesting at railway stations and crude oil is worth less than nothing. Without the sombre and sobering backdrop, the current situation would be many a conservationist’s dream.

The pandemic is laying bare many truths—amongst them, a glimpse of how mother earth might look if we re-examined the way we do things. The economic damage, which impacts upon the ability to ensure good environmental stewardship, means this can not be a permanent state of affairs—but equally,  a return to the life we were leading immediately before the pandemic hit would rapidly undo any positive environmental consequences of the lockdown. When this crisis passes, we will still have the battle with the impact of climate change on our hands. While COP26 has been postponed until next year some time, we must remain more focused than ever on how the world can reduce carbon emissions.

Restarting and rebuilding economies that have had the handbrake yanked on will not be easy, and will require policy intervention and regulatory imagination to make happen if a prolonged downturn is to be avoided—but doing so with the health, sustainability and long term interests of the planet to the fore is not only desirable, it is an imperative if meeting 2050 targets is to be a realistic ambition.

Solar and wind, now cheaper than coal, must be stabilized with a backbone of power that ensures reliability of the system and enables a genuinely low carbon power system—without heavy reliance on continuing to burn fossil fuels—prefixing gas with the word natural does not stop it being a massive emitter of carbon into the atmosphere.

As Bill Gates says, “nuclear is ideal for dealing with climate change, because it is the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day.” Uniquely, nuclear power can offer a proven way of generating high volumes of always-on, low carbon power, alongside transformational economic benefits in jobs, growth and investment. Nuclear power stations can, and do, deliver clean electricity reliably and consistently over a very long period of time, avoiding millions of tonnes of carbon emissions as they deliver the power we require.

As studies from the International Energy Agency, the OECD, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, the Energy Systems Catapult and others all conclude, the desire to meet Net Zero requires the consistent, low carbon, reliable power that nuclear provides as a pre-requisite alongside energy where output is dependent upon the weather.

With everything else in the news, it’s easy for this Earth Day to come and go with almost no recognition—but it would be a mistake to ignore what the planet has been shouting at us for years.

We should now be thinking about which parts of normal are worth rushing back to, and which should be temporary. Rebuilding and re-designing the post-Covid-19 world is an opportunity to leave behind that which exacerbates climate change and focus on that which challenges and can help us take it on. So, as the fog begins to clear across the planet, have we learned, and can we see clearly that we can do better? That should be what we reflect on on Earth Day 2020.