Earth Day 2020: Is the Coronavirus lockdown a glimpse of a new, greener future?

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, our Environment Correspondent Charlotte Cross looks at what impact the Coronavirus lockdown is having on the world around us - and what it might mean for the future.

Is the lockdown a glimpse of what a new, greener future could look like? Some campaigners certainly think so.

Human activity is, arguably, the lowest it’s been for decades.

As the nation follows orders to stay home to help the health and emergency services battling the Covid-19 pandemic, many businesses have temporarily stopped or scaled down; others are asking workers to clock in from home.

All of that means there are fewer people making fewer journeys. Figures from the Department for Transport show that travel by road, rail and the Tube in London fell by 60% between the start of February and the start of April.

Visitor numbers to Birmingham New Street station alone dropped some 86% - down to just over 71,000 a week by the start of April, from more than half a million in the week before lockdown began.

And we’ve reported previously on the affect that’s having on pollution levels, which have plummeted; particularly in normally-congested parts of major cities.

Analysis of nitrogen dioxide levels show Leicester in particular has benefitted; with the number of micrograms of nitrogen dioxide per cubic metre dropping by almost half compared to the same period of time last year.

The empty streets of Leicester during lockdown, as figures show parts of the city have recorded huge drops in pollution levels. Credit: PA

Meanwhile, new figures from the Shared Data Unit show the impact the lockdown has had on air travel too.

In the week ending March 22, there were 345 flights which left Birmingham Airport. In the week ending April 19, there were just eight. That’s a fall of almost 98%, far higher than the national average of 91%.

For East Midlands Airport, the number dropped 72%, from 185 to 51.

Luke Basnett is among those who lives beneath one of the flight paths for Birmingham Airport, in the village of Catherine-de-Barnes in Solihull.

The difference, he said, has been extraordinary.

The number of flights leaving UK airports has plummeted. Credit: ITV News Central

“On a normal day, we can get planes going overhead every five to 10 minutes - and living where we do, it can get really loud,” he said.

“But that’s been drastically reduced. We’ve seen maybe one plane in the last two weeks. Being out in the garden is so nice and quiet - you can hear birds singing, which you just couldn’t before.

“For us, it’s been a refreshing chance. And I think some people are dreading going back to how it was before.”

In fact, in a Facebook poll survey posted by a group for residents of Catherine-de-Barnes, more than 90% of those who responded agreed there had been an improvement in air quality, noise and traffic since the lockdown began.

And with less traffic and fewer humans out and about, people are reporting seeing more wildlife, too.

It’s a phenomenon echoed around the world.

Goats take advantage of the quiet streets in Llandudno, Wales. Credit: PA

In Yosemite National Park in California, rangers have reported seeing more bears exploring openly since visitors were banned there; while coyotes have been pictured on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

The canal waters of Venice in Italy - normally churned up by the frequent Vaporetti water taxis - are now so clear that residents say they can see shoals of fish.

In Llandudno in north Wales, a herd of wild goats has taken over the streets, munching on garden shrubs and stubbornly blocking what little traffic there is.

And closer to home in Lincoln, a fox and a badger were spotted together, having a midnight snack in a back garden.

But it’s not all positive.

Beach cleaning events cannot go ahead under lockdown rules. Credit: Marine Conservation Society | Steve Melia

A ban on mass gatherings means events like the regular beach cleans organised by the Marine Conservation Society in Herefordshire can't go ahead - though the charity says it is still working to try to find a way for its annual Great British Beach Clean event in September to take place, working with the government guidelines.

The year-round events serve to monitor the kind of waste heading into the oceans - as well as clearing away litter from the seafront which otherwise gets washed straight back into the water.

“There are fewer people out and about, so we should see less on-the-go litter like plastic bottles or cans, which is a good thing,” the charity’s beach watch officer, Lizzie Prior, told me.

“But we are concerned about a potential rise in single-use plastic, as well as things like masks and gloves - we’ve seen pictures of them just dropped on the ground in some places, which could end up washed into waterways and then down to the sea.

Gloves and masks being dropped is also a concern. Credit: PA

"And they pose an additional danger to anyone who picks them up too, if they’re contaminated.

“[Events like the beach clean] are really important to our work, especially the data collection side. It feeds into all our campaign work, our policy work, trying to affect real positive change. So it has been really impactful.

“But obviously the most vital and important thing is the safety of our volunteers, and we’ll get back to holding events as soon as it’s safe.”

There’s also the economic impact to consider, too.

And many green campaigners are remaining pragmatic about the perceived environmental benefits of the lockdown.

Beach clean events help stop litter like this being washed back into the sea. Credit: Marine Conservation Society | Steve Melia

They argue that if society simply returns to the status quo in place before the lockdown, then any minimal benefit to air quality and wildlife will disappear as quickly as it happened.

Instead, they hope lessons can be learned which could guide future policy.

Cllr Stephen Caudwell is a Green Party councillor for Castle Bromwich, another area under a Birmingham Airport flight path.

“I’m hearing a lot from residents about how much respite they’re getting from the noise and fumes the airport was generating. I’ve got lists of e-mails in my councillor’s mailbox about how great they think it is,” he said.

“We’re getting much better air quality and we’re getting a great reduction in noise pollution, and we’re getting much more space on our streets for walking and cycling.

The normally-congested Smallbrook Queensway in Birmingham city centre, almost deserted after lockdown was imposed. Credit: PA

“But it isn’t really any more sustainable than it was six months ago," he said.

"It’s very dangerous to say ‘oh, we should just stop flying planes as a result of this because look how wonderful it is.

"The reality is that certainly Birmingham Airport is a major economic contributor to the borough, and lots and lots of people rely [on it] for their livelihoods. So we have to be careful.

"I think we have to agree now that the walked out of lockdown into, can't be the world that we walked out of into lockdown.

"And I think we have to be conscious that there is that decision point coming up, when we've got Coronavirus under control where we really have to stop and think: What sort of world do we want the new normal to look like?"

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