Given the attention on the health and economy of the nation, how can environmental issues remain a priority?
Economic recovery needs to go hand in hand with environmental issues. Environmental problems are just as big, but often a different timescale. There are economic opportunities from pursuing an environmentally positive policy, such as investing in renewable energy generation and increasing the energy efficiency of housing. There is strong public support for a ‘green’ recovery that should be taken advantage of.
How can we keep our perspective on the direct impact of say, air pollution, for example?
It is important for environmental problems, such as air pollution, to be made visible. This can be achieved through a combination of measuring air quality, and communicating what the scale of the problem is, how it is caused and ways to address it. Some of the dramatic images of clearer skies and cityscapes we saw particularly during stringent lockdowns due to COVID were a powerful way of demonstrating the cause of air pollution and the power we have to change this. The question is how to sustain these positive outcomes when economic growth returns.
What kinds of things can people do for climate change individually?
Air pollution is directly related to what we do, how we travel, how we work, and how we create things. The situation we have been in during lockdown shows what human action or inaction can do. Some of the mechanisms in which we can affect change are still open. It’s still possible to lobby MPs or local politicians, to get involved with NGOs. The bigger question is behavioural change. Most people have had to change how we travel and work because of COVID, and there will be questions about how much of this can be retained. People can be part of the change.
Is individual change enough?
The major changes that are going to positively affect climate policy and air pollution policy are not individual change, but structural change, that is policy at the national and international level as well as corporations. Individuals have a role in lobbying for this.
How can we influence structural change?
We can campaign within our workplaces. At King’s we have staff and students volunteering as Sustainability Champions and in the Climate Action Network. They can make small changes including at department level, and in turn, King’s as a big institution can make a wider change.
Can you give an example?
Yes, for example, the Divestment Campaign. KCL students were one of the first to pursue this, and successfully lobbied university management to withdraw from fossil fuel investment by 2022. Previously some £8m was invested in fossil fuels at the university. This is linked with similar campaigns at other universities and many other institutions.
How hopeful are you that the reduction we have seen in air pollution because of less travel will influence policy?
It’s open and not determinist where things will go. If we go down the route of austerity, like following the financial crisis of 2008/9, it will undermine this. Significant cuts were made to central and local government that made it hard to develop and implement environmental policy. Significant investment is required to reduce air pollution and tackle climate change, and this will require government action. A test will be what the UK government commits to as host of the next UN climate change conference in November.
Are there other ways that change can happen?
Yes. We see, for example temporary cycle lanes that have been created in cities like London because of Covid have created space for pedestrians and cyclists. This is a window of opportunity as if people see and experience the concrete effect of these changes on their lives and on the environment, it can create a group who will lobby to keep them, and to increase their ambition.
How can we help to keep some of the temporary changes that have been introduced?
At the local level as individuals we have an opportunity lobby for change, and to respond to local council consultations on trial initiatives such as. Parklets for example, where you can rent a parking space and use it to create a green space, school streets, road closures, cycle lanes and cycle parking. Public and political support is needed to make changes and to keep them.
Dr Maltby is a senior lecturer in international politics in the Department of Political Economy, working primarily on issues related to climate and energy policy.
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