A statement of fact can miss the big picture

20th Apr 2020


A few weeks ago I warned that some from the environmental lobby were viewing the Coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to show that carbon emissions can be dramatically lowered. Realising the public mood wasn’t ready for such claims, that approach melted away. I was surprised to read a tweet last week, from an energy “insider” on the supplier’s side, repeating the claim that the lockdown in China had “saved” 70,000 lives because pollution levels had fallen.

Now that figure may be accurate but it is all about context and mood when trying to push an opinion. I’m still convinced that anyone trying to argue that a global pandemic can have some redeeming features is badly out of tune with public opinion. Can you imagine appearing on the Today programme, arguing that the carbon savings and improved air quality in our cities are worth the pain and suffering? The economic losses, which disproportionately hit the least well off in any society, are a price worth paying? All I would say is good luck for that appearance, it will likely be your last.

So why is it harmful? Firstly, emotions are raw. Lives have been cut short; livelihoods put at risk; lifestyles turned upside down. Even if there are environmental gains, now isn’t the time to mention them. Secondly, to get the public to embrace long-term change to facilitate Net Zero or improved air quality, it must be done without huge sacrifices being made. That certainly can’t be said now.

Some would say, well the facts are there and it was only referring to China, where there’s an acute air pollution problem. Firstly, the number is China is so large because the population is. On a pro rata basis, the UK also has an acute air quality problem. Secondly, that somehow it is OK for the Chinese economy to shutdown, not the UK’s? The lesson from all of this, is we are interdependent like never before. We simply cannot treat economic hardship in China as something of no consequence to us. So a lockdown there hurts their workforce; it hurts our supply chains; it reduces overall global economic growth. It certainly isn’t grounds for a celebratory tweet.

Best wishes

Mike Foster, CEO