With COVID-19 lockdown forcing a shift in our behaviour, can we use it to benefit our work, our health, and that of the planet?

Jess Clarke CONSTRAIN Project Manager, University of Leeds

COVID-19 plunged the world into a lockdown that some perceived as potentially beneficial in the emissions race to Net Zero. We now know the direct effect on climate change has been negligible, though the speed of change around the world, and in our climate science community would have been previously unthinkable. 

A continued global lockdown is not possible or sustainable, for society or the planet. We understand that climate ambition needs to move forward with a blend of individual and structural changesadapting the global economy to push a green recovery. Amid this, we can reflect on this year and carve a new path for our community with more sustainable values, for people and planet, at the forefront.  

Climate science has long been at the sharp end of media attention, as well as that from our friends and family, highlighting in particular our air travel to international conferencesAs a Europe-wide consortium, we had planned to organise or attend several of these over the duration of the projectGiven the grounding of flights and complete overhaul of our conferences to online platforms, we can say with more confidence that we are walking the walk, but does it work, and do we like it? 

Like many, we found that online conferencing took a while to get used to, with increased screen time and a lack of human contact soon becoming issuesBut as we have adapted, the good seemto outweigh the bad in terms of holding effective, targeted meetings and being more inclusive – time zones and connectivity issues permittingIn general, we have found it easier to ensure that a wide range of voices are heard, despite some very late nights and early morningsIt is more mechanical, but it gets the job doneA poll by Nature tells us, scientists want virtual meetings to stay after the COVID pandemic That said, is a wholesale shift to online conferencing one we can cope with long-termAnd is it right both professionally and personally? 

A large factor in preserving face to face meetings for the future is protecting the networking opportunities this presents, particularly for younger researchers, and feeling part of a teamWithout seeing each other more spontaneously we cannot engage in the wider world quite as we used to, despite perhaps being able to engage with a wider range of people virtually.  

A blend of online and face to face seems to be the most obvious answer as lockdowns easeand we will look to facilitate this. The CONSTRAIN sustainability policy offers a framework for our travel arrangements when we are free to move again, and Horizon 2020 have made carbon offsetting an eligible expense, so we can at least compensate for the emissions that do arise as we travel 

We will assess the benefits – and the risks – of both organising and attending in-person conferencesin this time of uncertainty, it will be interesting to see if 30,000 people do descend on Glasgow this year for COP26Inclusion will need to be at the heart of these decisions 

As I write this, I am watching planes taking off at Leeds Bradford Airport in the windpilots perhaps rusty from months on furloughFeeling uncomfortable about how a planned expansion of this airport sits with our Government pledges of a green revolution, I hope this plan and HS2, like the Cumbria coal mine is rethought before emissions are locked in, more high carbon behaviour encouraged, and any more local ecosystems are destroyed. Hopefully we have reached a time where new high carbon infrastructure is politically unacceptable. See you online and by train next time, carbon duly offset.