Economic crises have historically had a major impact on the environment. As economies falter, there is a reduced demand for commodities, such as timber, oil and other materials produced by the extractive industries, putting less pressure on our forests and rivers.
The impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) is even more widespread. Just over 100 days since countries across the world started shutting down trade and travel, closing businesses and limiting other economic activities in an attempt to control the coronavirus pandemic we are already seeing significant environmental changes. Just as after the 2008 financial crash, when the shuttering of businesses saw levels of atmospheric sulphur dioxide fall 85 per cent in Delhi, and man-made greenhouse gases in Europe and the US drop by 100 million tons, the measures being enacted to control coronavirus are already showing visible, and far reaching, atmospheric environmental improvements.
Social media and the press have been awash with stunning images of improved air quality around the globe. The first images came from NASA, showing how pollution levels were visibly lower across China following its lockdown. Today we see photos of cities, such as Beirut and Los Angeles, once smothered in smog, now with clear air. Emissions from traffic in New York have dropped almost 50 per cent. And Europe, too, shows significant reductions in air pollution. Again, these improvements in air quality are so vast that they are visible from space. The environment, it seems, is having a much-needed, if eerie, reprieve.
Meanwhile, as we scramble to impose restrictions to control the spread of the virus, an economic crisis is already starting to take hold, and one that the WTO predicts to be significantly worse than that of 2008. While many businesses are fully shuttered, others are telling their workforces to continue working from home. With conferences cancelled, international meetings postponed, and social distancing being enacted on a near global scale, more and more work is being carried out online and remotely. This move is reflected in the surge in use of platforms, such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom, which have seen 775 per cent and 378 per cent increases in usage respectively.
The seeming ease with which online working appears to have become the norm – from universities and banks to fitness classes, and even GPs – may well mean that as the COVID-19 threat recedes and the economy begins to recover, companies and individuals could choose to continue working online and remotely; lured by the prospect of cheaper work spaces, but also by the green credentials provided by those images of clear LA and Delhi skies. But how much greener is working from home?
While a great deal of reduced emissions are the result of people travelling less, and the closing of factories, the move to online working is not free of environmental consequences. Aside from the minerals needed to build such digital infrastructures, the amount of computing power required to keep everything ticking over is increasing significantly, too. And, computing power requires real power.
While electricity consumption and its associated emissions from individual computers and laptops being used by staff working at home are small on a personal level, the ever-increasing amounts of data that flows between them is handled by huge data centres. Eight million of them now dot the planet processing over 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. Power is required not only to keep all that data moving, but also to keep the centres cool (just think how hot your own computer gets) and both are hugely power intensive.
In 2016, the world’s data centres were already using more than Britain’s total electricity consumption – 416.2 terawatt hours, significantly higher than the UK’s 300 terawatt hours. With more than 75 per cent of the world’s power still being generated through the burning of fossil fuels, and with many data centres located in countries such as the USA, where renewable energy accounts for less than 17 per cent of electricity production, data centres now account for more than two per cent of total CO2 emissions, giving them a similar carbon footprint to the aviation industry.
While the atmosphere has certainly seen reductions in particulates and other pollution, as we have been driven indoors by coronavirus, climate change and atmospheric pollution remain a fundamental concern when life returns to ‘normal’. Deciding to keep on working from home might only push the production of pollution further from our field of vision.
What happens to the environment in the wake of the pandemic will largely depend on the scale of the economic damage caused. While world leaders say they hope that stimulus packages will be able to stave off the worst effects of the crisis, it is likely that the scale of these events will see a fundamental reordering of the global economy, which will wreak havoc on societies across the world, pushing millions into poverty, and a push for new economic growth will create even greater environmental pressures.
While the question of working from home might seem small in the face of such economic and social crisis, it’s one we need to ask. If we are going to preserve environmental gains with fewer flights and more Skype, then how will we power this even more data intensive world? A crisis is always a chance for structural change — we have seen that we can reduce air pollution significantly, and as we emerge from the pandemic, we must look for environmentally sound life styles and renewable energy resources to power the economic recovery.
For the moment we remain stuck at home. As we ponder what future we want, remember, that email might not be so green after all…
Doug Specht is a chartered geographer (CGeog. FRGS), a senior lecturer (SFHEA) and the director of teaching and learning in the School of Media and Communication at the University of Westminster