By Ian Brownlee
The devastating impacts of Covid-19 are being felt around the world. One unexpected outcome may be that it reduces the rate of climate change. The coronavirus may inadvertently be the unifying factor which forces change in lifestyles on a global scale.
To meet carbon emission reduction targets, changes in lifestyle and business are required: consumption of almost everything must be reduced and manufacturing, energy use, international transport of goods, tourism and air travel curtailed. Government targets no longer solely relate to turnover and economic growth, but also to quality of life. Many have not yet accepted this.
Since December, Covid-19 has had a massive impact on all these areas, reducing carbon production worldwide. Diminished industrial production in China has had an impact on international supply chains.
This has lessened long-distance transport of cargo, curbing emissions from ships and vehicles. Reduced industrial activity and transport have lowered demand for oil, frightening Opec into calling for a cut in oil production.
Restrictions on the movement of people have forced lifestyle changes, some more efficient and cheaper, which could become normalised. The Hong Kong Council for Sustainable Development identified important areas in which the city needs change to reduce carbon emissions. Covid-19 has already wrought significant progress in three of them.
The first is reducing travel by air and cruise ships and holidaying more at home. Closing
Hong Kong’s borders, in addition to travel restrictions on Hongkongers imposed by other countries, has devastated air travel.
More people are enjoying their local country parks and beaches.
The International Air Transport Association estimates that passenger demand in the Asia-Pacific could fall 23 per cent. It is unrealistic to expect Hong Kong tourist numbers to ever return to the almost 65 million visitors of 2019; a target of
50 million is likely to be more sustainable. With fewer tourists, our city is a better place to live.
Second, we are seeing less shopping and eating out. People should shop for need and quality, not engaging in conspicuous consumption, which creates unnecessary waste and energy use. The retail sector, hard hit by the social unrest, faces even more dramatic changes due to border controls and the reduction in tourists. Retail turnover dropped
21 per cent in January, continuing a declining trend.
Throughout the world, bricks and mortar stores are losing out to e-commerce. The massive growth in
online shopping in China will further reduce the number of people from the mainland coming to Hong Kong to shop. Hongkongers have tended to treat shopping as a hobby, but will face increasing pressure to mainly buy necessities.
Finally, the coronavirus epidemic has changed how business and education are conducted. The government has closed schools and asked civil servants and private sector employees to work from home. People have had to learn how to carry out group discussions and teach online. Companies and schools have installed the technology to make this happen.
These changes reduce the need to travel, save time and reduce the demand for office space, quickly forcing Hong Kong to become a “smart city”.
Medical experts say that Covid-19 will not end this year as the contagion has spread worldwide. These changes in behaviour and economic activity will become entrenched as the new normal way of doing things.
Hong Kong can never go back to what it was before Covid-19. Lifestyle changes forced upon us, such as bursting the tourism bubble and reduced shopping, mean a new focus on serving the needs of Hongkongers rather than an artificial dependence on tourism.
Is there a link between climate change and the new coronavirus?
Economic commentators see Covid-19 as a reality check. Anthony Rowley notes in the Post that financial markets have reached unsustainable highs “on the back of seemingly endless monetary easing, low interest rates, inflated asset values and credit-fuelled consumption”.
Hong Kong needs to develop environmentally friendly sectors, such as creative industries and the arts. The government should not support sunset businesses, but invest in retraining people to become new assets to our city.
Covid-19 has had a disastrous impact on health throughout the world. But it may significantly change economies and lifestyles, and thus save the planet from the climate crisis.
(Ian Brownlee is managing director of Masterplan Limited, a planning and development consultancy and is an advocate of practical sustainability.)
(South China Morning Post)