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Green Reflections 2020 - Happy New Year for 2021

December 31, 2020 7:25 PM
By Keith Melton

Green Reflections 2020

From the ChairIt seems to be the general consensus that 2020 is a year we will be glad to see behind us. And, of course, it would be easy to fall in with such a view. A few hours before starting to write this, I saw a note on FaceBook that went something like this… "I am not staying up on New Year`s Eve to see in the New Year… but I am stopping up until midnight to make sure 2020 actually leaves us!"

However, I thought it might be worth trying to look at the year from an optimist`s perspective, since I would normally class myself as an optimist. I also want to review the implications of 2020 from an environmentalist viewpoint too.

Let me be clear, firstly, that I do not belittle the grief many people will have faced this year. One of our close friends in Brazil has lost four family members in less than two months to the dread disease that has wrought such carnage. Our hearts go out to her and her family and, indeed, all the families around the world who have lost loved ones. There will surely be a time, soon, when we can address the mistakes and missteps of politicians, but this is far from my objective here today.

Perhaps the first major positive we should take from 2020 is to embrace the carers and front-line health workers who have selflessly stepped up to the plate to look after the sick and dying, sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice themselves. This level of altruism and community dedication is inspiring, not least to those of us who have been sheltering behind closed doors for many months.

Along a similar line of dedication have been the rapidly put-together scientific and logistic efforts that have gone into getting a number of potential vaccines to the point of use within a twelve-month timeline. And our thanks should go out, too, to those volunteers who have put themselves in potential harm`s way to provide the researchers with their results.

Community Co-operation

These two positive aspects of 2020 bring me to my first `environmentalist` commentary. In essence 2020 has shown the degree to which it is possible to work together in a crisis. It has happened before, of course, during the "Hole in the Ozone" crisis in the 1980s. The Green Lib Dems` fore-runner, the Liberal Ecology Group (LEG), played a significant part in helping to push that agenda, too.

Once the real potential impact of having chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) dispersed into the atmosphere was recognised, the International Community came together very quickly to redraw protocols for production and use of such chemicals. Even so it took a good few years to get the laws in place and longer still to stop production and use. So, there was some celebration of the fact that in 2019 the ozone hole in the southern hemisphere was the smallest observed since 1982. (It may be something of a double-edged sword, however, in that the research shows that warmer temperatures over Antarctica in the southern summer helped keep the hole to a more modest size!)

Another recent research finding has shown that not everybody has respected these new protocols and some unscrupulous operators have started making and using these damaging materials, now available in less-regulated market places. Sadly, we always have to reckon with individuals who see money-making and profit-taking as higher priorities than corporate social responsibility. Hence the need for regulations and monitoring.

In some ways the response to the Climate Crisis has followed a similar route to the Ozone Hole crisis, in that the underlying science has been almost unanimously accepted and the world reached the 2015 "Paris Accord" which mirrored the Montreal Protocol of 1987 on Ozone-depleting products. The big difference is that the phasing out of CFCs could mainly be done at a technical level and required fairly modest behavioural changes by the general population.

The scale of the Global Heating problem is much, much larger however, and will inevitably require significant behavioural change from us all. This also means that climate deniers may have a more damaging role, by delaying, or worse, preventing necessary action. We have seen that writ large of course, by having a climate denier in the White House for the last four years and the damage that has wrought on the body-politic both there in the US and world-wide.

Regime Change in the USA

It is such a relief, therefore, that there has been a significant regime change this year in the United States. There is also a true silver lining to the Coronavirus cloud, in that the 2020 Conference of the Parties (COP26), which was due to take place in Glasgow in November, has been put off until November 2021. If it had been able to hold COP26 this year, President-numpty #45 would undoubtedly have boycotted the meeting, having withdrawn from the Paris Accord and the whole initiative would probably have taken several backward steps.

As it is, President-elect #46, Joe Biden, has already indicated he will oversee the resumption of the US presence within the Paris Accord. There will, therefore, be a major US presence in Glasgow this next year, with all the positive consequences that should entail.

I have made no secret of the fact that we, Green Liberal Democrats, should be playing this card for all that it is worth over the next twelve months. We must make this OUR issue; OUR big idea for 2021 - we must OWN COP26 and make sure our Party is seen to do all in our power, (limited though that may be!) to press forward with a positive agenda to tackle Global Heating and the Climate Catastrophe.

Cleaner Air

Another notable factor during the last year has been the improvement in air quality in many places around the world flowing from the economic lockdowns as a consequence of the pandemic. During the first period of lockdown there were estimates that showed significant drops of both NO2, nitrogen dioxide (down 40% from the same timeframe one year earlier) and small particulates PM2.5 (down 10%). It was estimated this may have saved 11,000 or more lives over the same period across Europe. (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/30/clean-air-in-europe-during-lockdown-leads-to-11000-fewer-deaths)

The other side of this coin was also the subject of research findings in the USA. "Researchers from Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health analyzed data on PM2.5 levels and COVID-19 deaths from about 3,000 U.S. counties covering 98 percent of the U.S. population. Counties that averaged just one microgram per cubic meter more PM2.5 in the air had a COVID-19 death rate that was 15 percent higher." (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/04/pollution-made-the-pandemic-worse-but-lockdowns-clean-the-sky/)

Professor Francesca Dominici, lead author of the Harvard study said that "If you're getting COVID, and you have been breathing polluted air, it's really putting gasoline on a fire."

However, the cleaner air benefits, reported from the first lockdown, have apparently been short-lived, according to a more recent study reported in early December. The UK-based Centre for Cities has found that air pollution has since returned to levels at, or above, their pre-lockdown levels in 39 of 49 large towns and cities in their study. (https://www.centreforcities.org/publication/covid-pandemic-lockdown-air-quality-cities/)

Nevertheless, the cleaner air was something that prompted a lot of comment earlier in the year with people remarking on the better views of the stars at night as well as the hearing of birdsong in quieter, cleaner cities early in 2020. Overall, it shows that change is possible if the political will is available to make that change stick - this is something that we need to keep reminding people of as time goes by.

Green Liberal Democrat Communications

Coming closer to home, I would also like to note the impact of the Coronavirus lockdown on our own GLD Communications.

It became clear quite early in 2020, that we would not be able to operate in the same way as previously as far as live/actual meetings were concerned. So, at very short notice, we rearranged our anticipated AGM meeting from an actual meeting to a virtual meeting during the Spring conference of the Party in March. (It was actually the 2019 AGM which had been delayed for various reasons! But that is a longish story in its own right!)

It also became clear that we would not be able to hold our one-day Summer conference in late June as we had been expecting. So, we quickly pivoted to running a virtual event in its place. Once we had accepted the change from a geographically-located conference, constrained by time, the format allowed us to develop a new approach altogether. We ended up with a 16-day `Festival of Green Events`, holding more than 40 separate events over a period spanning three weekends.

We were able to include nine of our eleven Westminster MPs and more than half of our 16 former MEPs in these events, as well as many senior academics and Company CEOs, from UK organisations as well as businesses based as far away as Los Angeles, with a minimum of fossil fuel consumed directly (our Internet Provider of first instance, Prater Raines, uses UK based, renewable-energ- consuming-servers, as we understand may also be the case for Zoom, too. Also, my energy use, at home, as the most frequent co-host is largely provided for by solar panels on the roof!)

Our five Fringe meetings at the Liberal Democrat autumn conference were also internet-based as was the whole Conference of course, plus a number of events organised by GLD since then. The Lib Dem Spring conference for 2021 will also be virtual, as we probably all know by now. Many international business meetings are now taking place across the ether, too, of course. And we expect that this will continue to be the case for many businesses far into the future, even when the pandemic has ceased to be the prime motivator here.

Cautious Optimism

So, as the last grains of 2020 sand slip through the timer, perhaps there is room for a little cautious optimism on the environmental front, even whilst the now-more-virulent pandemic continues to rage around us. We must continue to push at the half-open door of public opinion and carry on raising awareness of the need for change. But we need to recognise we have many more hearts and minds to win before the overall political will is going to take us forward to the sunny uplands of a green future.

May I take this opportunity to wish you all a safe and green New Year for 2021. May we all continue to demonstrate the passion for change which drives us to action and political activism.

Happy New Year for 2021