The Effects of COVID-19 on Carbon Emissions and how longer-term remote working may impact it further

Dr Becky Briant, Department of Geography and ​Marianna Muszynska, Sustainability Officer, Bloomsbury Colleges Greenthing, consider the impact of the current pandemic on the environment

A picture of a steam locomotive train

A steam locomotive train

There’s a certain schadenfreude in the community of environmental campaigners about the impacts of the current coronavirus crisis on travel and therefore on carbon emissions, but is this crisis really good for reducing our impact on the environment long term?

A reduction in carbon emissions in response to a reduction in economic activity is not a new phenomenon. As Dr Becky Briant teaches Birkbeck Geography MSc students on our Climate Change module each year, one of the only reasons that global emissions only grew 11% between the early 1992 commitments to reduce emissions and the year 2000 was the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic is having similar effects, with an estimated 90,000 barrels of oil per day reduction on 2019 levels at the start of March. Oil production is particularly hard hit by this crisis because it is mostly used for transport. This has other knock on positive environmental effects such as a reduction in air pollution in urban areas.

Whether or not these initial effects will have a long-term benefit for the environment, however, is entirely dependent on what decisions are made in relation to energy usage and infrastructure once society returns to ‘normal’ after social distancing restrictions are lifted. The only way to reduce global carbon emissions in the long term is to decouple economic growth from carbon emissions. There is some evidence that this has been happening in many service-based economies over the past few decades, even if you account for the carbon in the goods that these economies buy from other countries (consumption-based emissions).

Closer to home, here in the UK, Government data shows that UK production-based emissions were about 45 per cent lower in 2019 than in 1990. This is a 3.6 per cent drop on 2018 levels and the same value as during 1888. Even consumption-based emissions have dropped somewhat. There is therefore some evidence that the UK are starting to decouple emissions from economic growth, with emissions reductions of 29% and economic growth of 18% between 2010 and 2019.

This is really good news for our environment, and of course the emissions reductions due to coronavirus are a welcome addition to this, but they are a short-term disruption to a long-term trend. Climate change is a long-term environmental issue and so only long-term changes will make a difference to reducing it.

Reverting to ‘business as usual’ after this crisis will give only another 10% fall by 2030, whilst meeting the UK’s carbon budgets require a fall of 31% by 2030. There is also the danger of a ‘bounce-back’ effect where Government is so keen to stimulate economic growth they reduce environmental ambitions. As a country, we are currently doing well at decarbonising our electricity supply (moving from coal to renewables), with gradual decrease also in the use of gas for space heating although mostly due to increased efficiency rather than switching to electric. Transport, however, is proving less tractable. Oil emissions have only dropped by 6% since 2010 and transport as a sector is now the largest contributor to UK emissions, even without international aviation and shipping, which are not accounted for by country.

Whilst at Birkbeck we are committed to long-term solutions to educate staff and students and reduce emissions and other environmental impacts, we too have seen examples of short-term changes that will not suffice in the long run to decrease carbon emissions. For example, two months of lockdown would reduce Birkbeck’s energy use by 17%, saving almost 400 tonnes of carbon emissions. Indirect emissions from staff travel are also reduced. However, with good planning and resolve carbon savings can still be achieved when restrictions are relaxed.

It is here that the COVID-19 crisis has the potential to leave a lasting legacy – reinventing the concept of the workplace. Having been restricted to remote meeting and discovered that the technology is frequently good enough to make these effective as well as saving time and money, organisations may decide to move to more remote meeting in the longer term. Working remotely for 5 weeks in a row, already, is daunting for some, but not all. Due to the long travel distances of many staff and cost of commuting into London, remote working is already common amongst academic staff. Forced lockdown for all staff has planted a seed of possibility of remote work more often than we previously anticipated is possible or productive.

We hope that once stay at home restrictions are relaxed, Birkbeck’s recovery plan will include encouraging more staff to work remotely a few times a week. This will have the benefit of reducing onsite energy use as well as emissions associated with commuting and business travel.

Whilst we can make these shifts at a local scale, for global changes to be effective, changes are also needed at national level. The key is in what Government policies are in place globally to ensure that economic recovery post coronavirus encourages environmentally positive activities. This is the moment to make this case, as can be seen in a the output of a wide range of organisations from the International Energy Authority to Extinction Rebellion. If we don’t, we risk bouncing back to higher emissions in the search to recover from the economic hit taken during this crisis.

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The silent extinction of the truffle kingdom

Could climate change lead to the complete extinction of truffles? BSc Financial Economics with Accounting student Nada Hinic explains.Mushrooms on a forest floor

         “All that is gold does not glitter,
          Not all those who wander are lost;
         The old that is strong does not wither,
         Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”

         (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring)

Could climate change lead to the complete extinction of truffles? According to some scientists, it is quite possible: the increase of dry and hot weather in the regions of Italy, France and Spain can lead to a very serious situation for truffles, with the possibility of them disappearing completely in these regions by the end of the century. This would mean that the delicacy, which is already dizzyingly expensive and can be compared to the price of gold, would reach the value of an even more incredible level.

Average retail truffle prices in 2019

Source: https://truffle.farm/truffle_prices.html

We can find strong evidence in historical articles on culinary culture that 18th and 19th century Europeans consumed truffles abundantly, from which it can be concluded that this fungus was not expensive. In the last 100 years, crops in the regions of Italy, France and Spain have decreased from a harvest of 2,000 tonnes a year to just about 20, due to global warming, acid rain, and, more recently, heat waves and reduced rainfall.

Scientist Ulf Buntgen, in his latest study ‘Black truffle winter production depends on Mediterranean summer rainfall’ (for which he used 49 years of continuous harvest and climate data from Spain, France and Italy) claims that truffle production rates from November to March significantly rely on previous rainfall from June to August, and that too much autumn rain adversely affects the later winter harvest.

The question might be asked how the market manages to survive. The logical answer would be that dealers have turned to alternative sources. Truffles themselves are not uncommon. Many sources in Europe still under the radar are producers in Croatia, Poland, Serbia, Albania … where they grow the same species as in the three most popular European regions. Why is that so? Truffles that are claimed to come from France or Italy (regardless of country of origin) achieve a premium price.

China has been, for several years now, the largest producer and exporter of truffles in the world. However, the quality of Chinese truffles is not satisfactory to any world standard, so their market price is very low. Australia and New Zealand are also on the horizon, but their production only covers their local demand. With the greatest sadness, one must also ask: will the Australian truffle market survive the devastation brought by the recent forest fires? The US has also entered the market recently, but it cannot be considered a serious competitor to the Europeans as yet.

All the sources combined are not enough to keep up with the demand for this delicacy. In 2019, a pound of quality black truffle cost about $650, and white almost $2000 (however the price soared again in November 2019). In 2017, due to too much drought in the previous year, the yield of white truffles was so weak that the price of one pound of white truffles skyrocketed to $4000.

Average white truffle prices (USD/lb)

Source: https://truffle.farm/truffle_prices.html

London restaurateurs charge around £5 per gram of truffle shavings, claiming they make no profit on truffle, but the reason for the offer is the quality of the dish: ‘only few shavings can turn the dish from ordinary to extraordinary’.

Because of their hidden underground life cycle, truffles have aroused the interest of many scientists and many mysteries about them have now been revealed, though not all.

Truffles are hypogenous fungi: that is, unlike mushrooms on stems, they grow underground. Buried, their interaction with the rest of the living world is very complex. They depend on their hosts on which they feed, which are primarily oak and hazelnut trees and fir trees. The development of truffles is a wonderful harmony between the tree and the truffle itself: the tree provides the truffle with sugar and the fungus gives the tree nutrients from water and soil. Fertilisation depends on the animals they can feed with their trunks, not on the wind, to spread its spores. To attract the attention of animals, when truffles mature, they turn on their spectacular scent, sending signals to anyone available to them that they are ready to be excavated so they can be dispersed.

But if truffles are so rare and desirable, why not just grow your own? The answer is that truffle cultivation is harder than it looks, and many scientists have addressed the issue. In recent decades, techniques have been developed to vaccinate tree seedlings with truffle mycelium, but the process is still difficult and does not necessarily guarantee that truffles will mature. Italian white truffles do not respond to these techniques at all, while French black truffles, on the other hand, are more susceptible to domestication.

Leading countries by truffle production in 2017 and 2018

Source: Leading countries by mushroom and truffle production 2018 (source: https://www.atlasbig.com/en-us/countries-mushroom-truffle-production) Leading countries by mushroom and truffle production 2017 (source: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-world-s-top-producers-of-mushroom-and-truffle.html)

The irrigation technique remains a safe method to preserve the survival, especially of the white truffle, as Buntgen observes in his work, but this also has its limitations. Recognising the vulnerability of the sector, there is a need to further foster stronger connections between farmers, politicians and scientists in order to maintain environmental and economic sustainability under the predicted climate change in southern Europe.

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Declutter your cupboard if you want, but it won’t save the planet

This article was written by Professor Frank Trentmann from Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. It was originally published on The Guardian

clutterIs this the year we finally get to grips with all our stuff? If so, it has been a long time coming. Forecasters and commentators say we have entered a new era where people prefer to share rather than own, and prize experiences over possessions. Retailers worry about the implications for them of a public sated on “peak stuff”. Official figures suggest that Britons are consuming ever fewer resources. And witness the worldwide success of the rationalisation bible, Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising.

It’s an encouraging thesis with which to start a new year. If only it were true. The talk is of the sharing economy, but the reality is that very little is being done on a large-scale level to reduce our high-consumption lifestyles. While it might feel virtuous to Marie Kondo your wardrobe, we urgently need to address the vast amount of often unseen resources that support our modern way of life.

To be fair, there are some signs of hope. The first repair café opened in Amsterdam in 2009. Since then, a thousand of these places have sprung up across Europe and North America, giving people a chance to share tools, materials and knowledge.

The bulk of the so-called sharing economy, however, follows a different model. On New Year’s Eve more than half a million people on the planet stayed in a home rented via Airbnb. Much of this is not about sharing but about renting and profit. It increases the demand for resources, rather than reducing it. Hotels earn less, but hosts earn more – which they spend on additional holidays. Lodgers save on cheaper accommodation and take more mini-breaks to Florence and Barcelona. Meanwhile, the total number of people owning second homes (and a second set of domestic appliances) steadily rises.

Car clubs have become a common sight. But let’s put it in perspective. In the UK, Zipcar has 1,500 cars. At the same time, Britons bought more than 2.7m new cars last year, more than ever before. Yes, perhaps, young people are less car-oriented today, but it might also just be a lag – housing costs and university fees have gone up and mean that cars are bought at 30, not at 20.

Sharing is not some new paradigm. Modern societies have done it for a long time – from the cooperatives to municipal baths and playgrounds. While growing in some commercial sectors, we are seeing it being chopped down in others, such as public libraries.

The story of “from stuff to fluff” is a similar mix of hopeful thinking and bad history. Visits to film and music festivals have sky-rocketed in the last decade. But let’s remember that more than 12,000 people flocked to the rehearsal of Handel’s Fireworks in 1749 in Vauxhall Gardens, causing a three-hour-long traffic jam on London Bridge. Experiences have been an essential ingredient in the rise of consumption over the last 500 years, from pleasure gardens to football stadiums. Nor is it wise to think of possessions and experiences as separate: since the 17th century, shopping for pleasure has been about making purchase a sensation.

Commentators have been complaining of people accumulating too many possessions since the sumptuary laws of the 15th and 16th centuries. In ancient Rome, Seneca warned the young were being corrupted by the pursuit of things and leisure, and before him so did Plato.

Today, services make up a bigger share of the world economy than ever – more than 40% in value-added terms, compared with 30% in 2008. But this does not mean the volume of goods and merchandise has fallen. It has grown in total, just a bit less fast than services. Since 1998, merchandise trade has more than doubled. More than four times as many containers travelled back and forth between Europe and Asia in 2013 as in 1995.

And a lot of leisure and other “experiential” services depend on material and resources. Zip-wiring in a jungle might feel more virtuous than buying a designer handbag, but you do not get there by teletransportation. In 2007, the French travelled 42bn kilometres to pursue their hobbies and another 12bn to eat out. That takes a lot of fuel.

A hybrid Toyota Prius might save petrol, but it eats up valuable rare-earth elements.

A hybrid Toyota Prius might save petrol, but it eats up valuable rare-earth elements.

Our love of digital services often leads to the idea that these somehow must be ethereal. But behind virtual communication there lurks a lot of physical matter: power stations, data centres, cables, batteries and cooling systems. Our mobile phones and headphones would not work without lanthanides. A hybrid Toyota Prius might save petrol but it also needs 9kg (20lb) of rare-earth elements, and that’s just for its battery. Information and communications technology already account for 15% of the service sector’s electricity consumption in France.

Adam Smith, the great moral philosopher and economist, noted in his 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments that people spent more and more on “trinkets” and “little conveniences” and then designed new pockets in order to carry a greater number. Today, you can buy magic jackets with a dozen, even 20 pockets, to accommodate a tablet, phone and other digital devices.

We are not dealing here with a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. Contrary to popular image, Scandinavians are not that austere either. In Stockholm, for example, the number of electronic appliances tripled between 1995 and 2014.

The idea of peak stuff rests in part on distorted and inadequate numbers. At the Office of National Statistics’ latest count (2016), the average Briton consumed 10 tonnes of raw materials and products in 2013, down from 15 tonnes in 2001. That looks heart-warming, but is a bit of an optical illusion. For it only counts the materials used in the UK. We are considered to have used more fossil fuel and minerals if we make a car in Luton with British coal and iron and steel than if we import a car made in Brazil or Poland. We really need to know about all the materials used. In effect, since the 1980s, Britain has off-shored the environmental consequences of its own consumption.

What’s needed is a level of thinking and a scale of action commensurate to the problem. By all means, buy fewer gifts next Christmas, but don’t fool yourself that this will accomplish much. Shopping is part of it, but our entire lifestyle is using up resources at unsustainable levels. Consumers carry a big, heavy “ecological rucksack” on their shoulders full of all the materials needed to service their lifestyle. It amounts to between 45 and 85 tonnes a year per person, depending on where you are in the rich world. This includes leisure, travel and comfy homes with central heating.

Changing that lifestyle must be the fundamental focus. This is not impossible; modern history is one rich story of successive lifestyle changes. But these have rarely been the result of individual choices. States and social movements played critical roles, harnessing the power and moral authority of collective opinion. If we are to bridge the gap between aspiration and achievement, this must be their task again.

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UN World Environment Day

This post was contributed by Dr Becky Briant, from Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies.

A journey of discovery

When I set up the MSc in Climate Change Management at Birkbeck in 2009, I thought I knew about climate change, having studied it since I was an undergraduate student in Cambridge. What I wasn’t prepared for was how little I actually did know. I didn’t know how much change had already happened (particularly in the Arctic and high mountain regions), and I didn’t realise just how little time we have left to make the sort of changes in our carbon emissions that our societies will be able to adjust to relatively easily. So, it was fascinating to watch a similar journey of discovery played out in the Birkbeck Cinema in Gordon Square last Thursday.

Thin Ice

The Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies (GEDS) organised a screening of the new film Thin Ice for UN World Environment Day. This film follows the geologist and amateur filmmaker Simon Lamb on a voyage of discovery to find out how reliable the science around human-induced climate change is. As a geologist, you might think that he too ‘knew’ about climate change, yet the film showed that there was so much more to know. Footage followed scientists in their ‘daily lives’, collecting data and analysing it, including shadowing scientists at the New Zealand Scott Antarctic Base. It looked at daily climate measurements and how atmospheric chemistry (including carbon dioxide) is measured at the present day. He also talked to physicists who explained the greenhouse effect and modellers about how robust their models are. What I found most fascinating however, was his interview with Phil Jones of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia. The interview was recorded before the events of ‘Climategate’ and to me clearly showed what the independent review later stated, that the CRU undertakes robust research on instrumental temperature records, and that the trend shows the temperatures are clearly increasing, as shown below. This trend is clearly seen also in many other instrumental temperature datasets.

Graph shows globally averaged Earth surface temperature (combined land and sea) based on instrumental datasets and produced by the Met Office’s Hadley Centre and the CRU in Norwich for 1850-2006. Source: Houghton (2009) Figure 4.1a based on FAQ3.1, Figure 1 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report from Working Group 1 (2007).

So, what should we do?

Following the film showing, there was a spirited discussion between ‘Thin Ice’ filmmaker David Sington, Antarctic scientist Colin Summerhayes and me (Dr Becky Briant) about how this problem can be tackled. The science is clear, despite vocal sceptics working hard to hijack the debate, but the politics are much more complex. This seems to be particularly since the pace of change is slow enough, at least in temperate regions, that urgent action seems like it can be put off. Debate was particularly lively around Colin’s assertion that scientists might come across as too alarmist to try and counter the sceptics and harm our own case. This was not a popular position and I was particularly struck by a student on one of the GEDS undergraduate programmes who is from Peru where she stated that mountain glaciers are melting, water supplies are threatened and no-one doubts the reality of human-induced climate change. Overall, much food for thought, and continued discussion over drinks outside the cinema.

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