The startling improvement in air quality during the first coronavirus lockdown provided politicians with a wakeup call. The emissions from China’s factories fell so dramatically that the change could be seen from outer space. Venice’s canals cleared for the first time in decades. The smog in Los Angeles lifted. Air pollution in the UK fell alongside the sharp reduction in traffic in our towns and cities. Greta Thunberg’s dreams were realised. But, as the lockdown began to ease, factories reopened and traffic began to build up again. The concentrations of dangerous air pollutants like carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which have significant impacts on human health, began to return. We need to take decisive action.
We need innovative ideas and lateral thinking if we are to tackle the problem effectively. A prime example of this lateral thinking has been developed by The Fleming Policy Centre, an independent research organization. They came up with the groundbreaking idea of TEQs or Tradable Energy Quotas. Under the system, the government would set an annual carbon budget, which would be reduced year on year until we reach our target of almost zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. TEQs is a national system involving every citizen’s active participation, providing the means to achieve emissions reduction targets, while ensuring fair access to energy for all. It involves a sort of rationing system, although not in the unpopular sense of the word, as it would allow individuals to exceed their basic ‘Entitlement’ to quota if they were prepared to buy them at the prevailing national price, thereby effectively compensating those who use less energy and have spare quota to sell.
Every adult would be given a free ‘Entitlement’ to units each week. Their weekly ‘Entitlement’ or additional units they purchased online would be automatically added to their bank card. Debits would take place automatically each time they purchased petrol, diesel, coal, gas, or other direct fuel or energy products. Other energy users including business, industry and the government, would have to bid for their units in weekly tenders or auctions. Sixty percent of adults are below-average carbon emitters and would be able to sell their surplus units, so the scheme would be popular with the majority of the public. People who use electric or hydrogen cars, or cycle or walk to work, would have surplus units to sell every week. In contrast, frequent fliers (if they ever return) and people who drive gas guzzling ‘Chelsea Tractors’, would exceed their weekly allocation rapidly and would have to revise their lifestyle or purchase expensive additional units. Everyone would become, quite literally, environmental-stakeholders, carrying their share of national emissions on their bank card and flogging their surplus units on-line. This kind of carbon trading scheme is less regressive than carbon taxes, as the poor emit less than the rich.
We will need to find other innovative ways of cutting emissions too. We have known for a long time the important role that our forests and peat bogs play in capturing and storing carbon. We call this process green carbon. They are an essential part of our global air-conditioning system, absorbing and burying CO2 as a crucial aspect of climate change mitigation. Forests absorb and store around fifteen percent of global CO2 emissions from transport and factories every year. Sadly, de-forestation, particularly the felling and burning of huge swathes of tropical rainforest, is one of the major contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions, contributing around twenty percent annually, which is why efforts are being made to pay countries in the Amazon and Far East to protect these vital ecosystems. Perversely, digging up peat bogs in Scotland to build wind farms also releases millions of tonnes of stored CO2 into the atmosphere.
But now, there is increasing awareness and attention being paid to the crucial role of our oceans and marine ecosystems in maintaining our climate. Over half of all the biological carbon captured in the world – around fifty five percent - is sequestered by marine living organisms in the sea, that’s why it is called blue carbon. As greenhouse gas emissions increase, including from countries experiencing periods of rapid economic growth like China, Brazil and India, they cause ever greater impacts on worldwide weather patterns. We can see the massive effect this is having on food production and human lives and livelihoods. Every day, prior to the Covid-19 lockdown, the world added a further 22 million metric tonnes of CO2 to our oceans. That’s why maintaining and improving the ability of our oceans to capture and store CO2 is of vital importance to human survival.
Without the essential ecosystem service our oceans provide, climate change would be far worse. Recent research has indicated that a tiny part of the marine environment – the mangrove swamps, salt marshes and seagrasses that cover just 0.5 per cent of the seabed, account for the capture of at least half of this blue carbon. They are our blue carbon sinks. Scotland’s coasts are home to some of the greatest abundance of seagrass meadows, maerl beds and kelp forests in Europe. Keeping them in good shape could be one of the most important things that we could do to keep climate change under control.
But to achieve this we have to reduce the rate of marine and coastal ecosystem degradation. We need to extend the emissions trading system to embrace blue carbon. Carbon credits for marine and coastal ecosystem CO2 capture and storage should be traded and dealt with in a similar way to green carbon. We need to establish a global blue carbon fund to pay for the protection and enhancement of remaining seagrass meadows, salt marshes, maerl beds and kelp and mangrove forests through effective management. We need to improve energy efficiency in marine transport, including the fisheries, aquaculture and maritime tourism sectors.
Vast industrial schemes to cover swathes of our coasts and ocean floors with wave, tidal and offshore wind farms, must be subject to intensive impact assessments, to ensure that they do not damage marine ecosystem services. If we can halt climate change in its tracks, the Covid-19 cloud may well turn out to have had a silver lining.