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The coronavirus crisis has impacted most global sectors tremendously. With increased home-working, fewer travel trips made, and supply chains disrupted, the impact on the environment has been visible across the world.
Air pollution levels have dropped, and many UK cities have seen sharp improvements in air quality due to less frequent air and road travel. In the few short months that coronavirus caused the world to ground to a halt, the positive impact on the environment has been obvious.
Not all the changes have been positive, however. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suspended the enforcement of environmental protection rules in the US, leading to worries that efforts to firefight the coronavirus have pushed climate concerns down on government priority lists.
However, all this change has emphasised one particular lesson; when it comes to emergencies, governments often don’t take action until the last minute. Where legal and regulatory changes could benefit our move towards a sustainable future, moments of upheaval, like the present, might be the perfect time to implement them.
As governments start to discuss their recovery plans from the coronavirus, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, gave a speech urging the world to make decisions collectively in the global recovery from the pandemic that would bring us towards a more sustainable future.
Guterres advised governments to put forward economic solutions that would create new green jobs, and to use public funds to invest in sustainable projects. He also advised that the economic recovery from Covid-19 should include making big polluters pay for their pollution.
Guterres called on countries across the world to utilise public-backed recovery plans to invest in sustainable growth, saying ‘Public funds should be used to invest in the future not the past.’ (BBC, ‘Climate change: World mustn't forget 'deeper emergency'’, Article published: 22 April 2020, by Matt McGrath, Environment Correspondent).
As part of the EU’s aim to become the first climate-neutral continent, the EU’s Green Deal was proposed last year. It lays out a roadmap of actions which should be taken by EU members to move towards a sustainable future.
The Green Deal has now taken centre stage in calls from EU ministers to put low-carbon goals at the centre of financial coronavirus recovery plans.
Thirteen EU climate and environmental ministers recently circulated an open letter asking for an EU-wide recovery strategy that twins an economic recovery from coronavirus with increased commitment to green goals.
The Global Climate and Health Alliance (which includes the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change) has also supported calls to make the Covid-19 recovery phase a greener one.
Although the UK is no longer part of the EU, and thus may not be impacted by regulatory changes brought about by the Green Deal, there are plenty of ways that the UK could see regulatory changes introduced because of lessons learnt from the pandemic.
For example, having witnessed how global supply chains have been so easily disrupted by the coronavirus, companies may wish to localise their production and supply chain - and regulatory changes could potentially force a rethink of where we produce goods.
This has been aided by the realisation that a lot of work can be carried out digitally - as more people cannot travel due to bans, and work from home.
Additionally, with the country in lockdown, this reflective time could be incredibly useful for planning a low-carbon recovery - and infrastructure spending could be key to the planning of the economic recovery.
For example, plans could be made to improve the infrastructure for electric vehicles, or for mandatory solar panels to be installed on all public buildings. The Green Party has called on the UK government to make public investment in such green infrastructure and projects a central part of its recovery strategy.
The UK could follow in the path of other European countries planning to spend on green infrastructure this summer. Milan, for instance, is one European city that has taken the opportunity in the wake of Covid-19 to lay out a new track towards green recovery - in the form of bicycle paths. The Strade Aperte plan is one of the most ambitious in Europe and will transform up to 35 kilometres of streets into cycle lanes and wide pavements over this summer. The deputy mayor of Milan, Marco Granelli, explained that the need to reopen the economy after Covid-19 is clear, but he stated that 'we should do it on a different basis from before.' (The Guardian, 'Milan announces ambitious scheme to reduce car use after lockdown', Article published: 21 April 2020, by Laura Laker, Freelance Journalist)
Certain regulatory changes, if adopted, could help drive a greener financial recovery after Covid-19. For example, airlines on the brink have applied for billions of pounds of government support since their flights have been grounded due to coronavirus. Austria’s transport minister recently said that any airline bailouts should include climate targets - and the UK could follow suit.
As the economy has had to be put on ‘pause’ during the crisis, there will be a significant push for renewal and regeneration after coronavirus. As we emerge from the crisis, now might be an easier time than ever to introduce legal and regulatory changes that would enable us to adopt a more sustainable future as part of the recovery.
Brexit - Environmental law implications
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