The pandemic should be a driver for positive environmental changes, especially within disadvantaged neighbourhoods, argues Anke van Hal of Nyenrode Business University
There is no doubt that the lessons learned from a crisis such as Covid-19 should bring about a range of long-term changes that will benefit society. Not least in the area of energy efficiency. Disasters such as this inevitably lead to an outcry not to go through such a terrible experience again, and consequently, structural changes can be implemented faster. However, whether Covid-19 will signal such a transition remains unclear. If it does, this will be significantly beneficial for several reasons.
Measures that need to be taken at local level around the world, such as limiting travel, are similar those that might be required in the context of the climate crisis. Whether you take such measures to combat a pandemic or to reduce the climate problem, the benefits will be recognised. The energy transition may therefore take flight because of Covid-19. However, this requires long-term vision, aimed at realising that this pandemic could last longer than expected or that a new pandemic could hit us in the future. The benefits of such a long-term vision can be immense, especially in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
Learning from the perfect storm
A comparison with the 1953 North Sea flood illustrates this insight and can provide concrete recommendations. Various transition theories show how new ways of working, new policies or systemic changes (which eventually become commonplace) often start with a crisis or a disaster.
The 1953 North Sea flood is one such instance. The storm surge struck the Netherlands, north-west Belgium, England and Scotland. The combination of wind, high tide and low pressure caused the sea to flood land up to nearly 20-feet above sea level. Sea defences were overwhelmed, causing extensive flooding. Nearly 2,000 people were killed in the Netherlands.
The flood caused a major rethink of coastal defences, weather predictions and warning systems after it became clear that the majority of deaths could have been avoided had these already been in place. Decision-makers looked to the long-term, and new flood defences were built on a cost/risk basis. The Thames Barrier is one such example that was designed and built following the lessons learned from the 1953 flood. Warning sirens were put in place in the most at-risk areas and are still in use today. The response in the Netherlands was immediate, with the Dutch government quickly forming the Delta commission to study the floods and eventually the Delta Works were commissioned, enabling the closing of estuaries to prevent upstream flooding. Measures included dams, sluices, locks, dykes, levees, and barriers. Huge investments were made deriving from a national mindset that this must never happen again.
When we compare the consequences of the 1953 flood and those of the coronavirus now, we can conclude that the consequences of the current pandemic will be huge. But if lessons can be learned, especially at the local level, then we can be stronger for it. We must not assume a rapid vaccination will solve all the problems of Covid-19, but plan for scenarios where there is no effective containment strategy or that another, new virus will come.
The response to the North Sea flood comprised of both long- and short-term strategies. For the time being, the coronavirus response seems dominated by short-termism. Virtually all the measures taken (partial lockdowns, limiting the number of contacts, financial support for companies) are intended to bridge the period until everyone is vaccinated. But we must have a long-term strategy, too.
A long-term strategy regarding the effects of pandemics would result in measures that are also desirable for many other reasons, especially in disadvantaged parts of cities. If governments, housing associations and civil organisations look carefully at the interests that have changed as a result of the pandemic, they will almost certainly come to the conclusion that it is precisely in those disadvantaged neighbourhoods, where people with low quality houses have little space indoors and often no outdoor space, that there is an urgency to work on improving the indoor climate and the living environment.
Low-quality housing can be refurbished so it has good ventilation and good insulation, which will make staying at home much more comfortable during summer and winter. The Netherlands wants to phase out natural gas as an energy source. If there are plans for a heating grid as an alternative in these neighbourhoods, the obvious solution is to speed up these plans, because the layout of the outdoor space can also be changed at the same time. Especially in those neighbourhoods where there is a greater need for green spaces that offer opportunities for relaxation and recreation. Adding more green areas also creates more opportunities for social distancing in the event of future pandemics. Bringing back or improving places where people can meet up and creating jobs must also be given high priority. Not only from a social point of view, but it also creates opportunities to involve residents in activities regarding the energy transition.
A vision for a better future
The highest priority is the development of a clear, long-term vision, communicated by central governments, based on both the possibility of a new virus in the future and that an effective vaccination which protects the entire world might take a while longer. One of the ways in which governments can show leadership is by also taking a good look at how interests have changed as a result of the pandemic and, on that basis, make new choices with regard to innovation and investments. Disadvantaged neighbourhoods are suffering disproportionately from the pandemic, and they should profit first and foremost from the positive outcomes of subsequent changes. For instance, the province of Zeeland eventually came out of the flood disaster a lot better in many ways.
I truly believe that the 1953 North Sea flood illustrates this insight and can provide concrete recommendations for our future. We need to invest in measures that can limit the impact of potential future pandemics. Now is also the time to appreciate the vital importance of our planet’s health and to take immediate action to protect it. The measures that can limit the impact of potential future pandemics, and measures to improve the energy-efficiency of housing and our biodiversity, are incredibly similar. This is a win-win situation because interests overlap.
About the author
Anke van Hal is Professor of Sustainable Building at Nyenrode Business University. This article was written in collaboration with Matthijs Uyterlinde and Platform 31. In a joint programme of 18 Dutch municipalities and Nyenrode Business University, the aim is to use the energy transition as a lever to improve the overall quality of life in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.