January 12. Badger, Rat, Mole and Toad would be deeply concerned. As a result of the enforced absence of humans from the National Trust property of Plas yn Rhiw on the Lleyn Peninsular, it is reported this week that stoats and weasels have moved out of the wild wood and have been seen in the gardens around the house.
The effect of successive lockdowns on the natural world have been complex. In broad terms, the story is one of an initial impact followed by a slow return to the prevailing crisis. There are many accounts of the sudden pleasures afforded by the cessation of noise and pollution. Here, for instance, Tobias Jones writes of Northern Italy in mid-April, at the time a global hotspot of the virus.
“I live in Parma, but despite the profound anguish here in Italy, it also feels, paradoxically, as if the world has come right in some way. With our despoiling suddenly stopped, wildlife is returning with innocent ebullience. Bottlenose dolphins have been playfully leaping in the waters around Venice. The canals are so crystalline that swans, and shoals of fish, have returned. Hares graze undisturbed in parks in Milan. Deer have been strolling the golf courses of Sardinia and paddling along sandy beaches. Mallards are bathing in Piazza di Spagna and birds have been nesting in the crooks of closed-up, disused wing-mirrors… In some ways it’s like a blissed-out stoner’s dream of what the world might be. The “Pianura Padana”, the flat plain of the Po valley, usually has some of the worst air pollution in the world. The air is now perfumed by spring. You can see the mountains. Two weeks ago we were singing Rino Gaetano’s The Sky Is Evermore Blue from our balconies.”*
Professional naturalists like Helen MacDonald sniffed that such wildlife had always been around, but no-one noticed it. Nonetheless the glimpse of what could be a new normal was at once a relief from the pandemic and a promise of what might in the future be possible.
The true measure of the pandemic year comes in the newly-released figures for the global temperature in 2020. It might be expected that with an overall fall of 7% in fossil fuel burning there would be at least a temporary decline. Instead, the year registered the joint highest temperature on record, shared with 2016. All that has been avoided as a consequence of the pandemic is a new highest figure in its own right.
In the short term, there are few positive signs. Road traffic has returned to or exceeded 2019 volumes as soon as restrictions have been lifted. London and other cities have not rediscovered the birdsong-rich silence of the beginning of the first lockdown. Plane travel is set to resume at pre-pandemic levels whilst trains and buses are unlikely to recover for the foreseeable future. As factories recommenced production after the first lockdown, pollution in China rapidly reappeared. In developed countries, long-nurtured reforms were postponed whilst governments grappled with larger problems. In Britain the introduction of Clear Air Zones was halted in Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Bath and other cities. There was a general reprioritising of government activity away from the green agenda to more pressing, and more expensive, responses to the medical emergency. In the developing world, the collapse of eco-tourism defunded programmes for protecting wildlife.
Where there are grounds for hope over the last few months it is mostly in changes which have little or nothing to do with the health crisis, particularly the continuing sharp falls in the cost of renewable energy and the rapid adoption of electric vehicles.
The specific impact has to be measured not in figures but in states of mind. All over the developed world people in cities as well as the countryside have been afforded a real-time preview how nature could look and sound if human populations exercised better control of their activities.
And after a Trump-led decline in confidence in the potential of global co-operation, the borderless engagement with the virus, including the scientific endeavour of vaccine development, has renewed optimism about the potential of human collaboration to respond to the climate crisis. The pandemic itself will not generate change. It will require ambitious planning over the long term.
“… the Badger settled himself into an arm-chair, and said, ‘Well, we’ve got our work cut out for to-night and it will probably be pretty late before we’re quite through with it.’”
*Tobias Jones, Guardian, 12 April, 2020.