Look for the green lining

A greener world starts right here in Sydney, writes Clare Hennessy. File photo.

The trials of Covid-19 have been many but it’s also presented an opportunity to improve our world – particularly our environment, writes Clare Hennessy.

In the time of Covid, I’ve noticed that us Sydneysiders are tempering our complaints with some kind of gratitude. The reason I’m compelled to is because I’m glaringly aware of how safe I am indoors, and while the gratitude feels a tad contrived sometimes, it doesn’t erase the seriousness of the situation.

In many ways, it affirms it.

On the low end of the loss spectrum, a play of mine had finally been slated for production in November and has since been cancelled. Being a playwright is tricky at the best of times, and I knew a career in the theatre was going to be unstable, but I didn’t think it was going to be potentially non-existent … yet, I’m lucky, I tell myself. It will probably get another shot in the near future. I am alive, and to paraphrase a great thespian, the theatre is the only institution that’s been dying for decades and never succumbs.

I remind myself that there are people who are dying. There are people in other states who are bearing the brunt of a second wave and making incredible sacrifices so that others may not have to. My generation’s existence has been defined by exponential growth and efficiency: there’s always better, faster, more convenient, cheaper.

It feels like, for the first time, we are beginning to understand and appreciate sacrifice.

I’m getting good at qualifying my grief with silver linings. My mum, on the other hand, is finding it a little harder to accept the things that Covid has prevented her from doing.

A self- identified candle-at-both-ends professional, she defines a lot of her personal success on her ability to compete on a world scale at what she does. Now, one only needs to look at the available flights from Sydney Airport to confirm that the world is no longer as accessible by plane.

So, I’ve been thinking of some silver linings on her behalf. I remind her that she can still attend conferences online. Her chronic pain is much better without so much strenuous flying. She can spend a lot more time with her family. And, most crucially, her flying footprint has been reduced, for the first time in over twenty years, to zero.

Two timelapses of Sydney Airport shot one year apart highlight the impact of Covid-19 on air travel. Video: Guardian News/YouTube.

In fact, Australia’s carbon emissions have dropped 8 per cent in the just the first quarter of 2020 because of travel restrictions alone. That’s the lowest our carbon emissions have fallen to in 22 years.

So far, our country has seen a 5.5 per cent reduction in coal generation of energy and a 12.2 per cent rise in renewable energy supply to the National Electricity Market.

Imagine how those numbers will look by the end of the year.

Amazingly, global emissions have seen a 5.5 per cent reduction compared to 2019, according to tentative estimates. That means that Covid-19 has triggered the largest fall in emissions seen in any previous economic crisis or wartime.

But scientists remain cynical. They are rightfully fearful of rebounding emissions as our economies open up.

I’m cynical too, considering our country’s preoccupation with prioritising a return to ‘business as normal’, rather than a ‘new normal’ that distances itself from the coal industry, a normal in which the fingers of coal lobbying are pulled out of our political pie.

And while 5.5 per cent is amazing, we actually need to see a global fall of 7.6 per cent this year.

We need to see that 7.6 per cent drop continue every year this decade, or else our planet will warm past the point where we have a choice in the changes we face.

Put into those terms, it’s almost fortunate that Covid forced our hand.

I’m very lucky. I grew up in a house of early adopters, with parents who had the initiative and resources to make a quick transition to solar panels, electric vehicles, recycling and reducing single use plastic. They’re technically boomers and yet they care a lot about climate change.

But how do we get to 7.6 per cent a year? I asked my mum this, feeling the odds to be insurmountable; most of us as individuals are already trying to do our bit, but just 90 companies are responsible for most of our carbon emissions.

What hope do we have of using this opportunity to turn the tide?

She sat me down and said, “If it doesn’t start in Sydney, where else does it start?”

So, we decided together on what more we could do, and what we could take forward into post-Covid life. This is our ‘green lining’: we will commit to eliminating all non-essential air travel by using telecommunication instead; we will limit eating meat to once a day, and work on reducing that (14.5 per cent of annual global emissions are caused by the meat and dairy industry); and we will only vote for governments that prevent deforestation and create a transition to clean energy and jobs.

I’m listening to the audiobook of Jonathan Safran Foer’s book We Are the Weather. Most of these suggestions come from him. I find the hardest one is eliminating meat … but it’s the elephant in the room, and many people aren’t ready to acknowledge it.

He also talks about fighting CO2 emissions like we are fighting a war.

The threat may feel like it’s ‘over there’, in the future, but just like the war, victory is not just won through battle – it is won because of the sacrifices we all make on the home front. Covid has shown us we can make sacrifices.

While it’s an event that none of us could have predicted, that none of us would wish for, it is an opportunity nonetheless that cannot be ignored.

Preventing a rebound can start in Sydney, a homefront in our own backyards.

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