COVID-19 has shown us people can “deliver change on a previously unimagined level quite quickly”, according to the woman overseeing climate change initiatives in Essex.
In a first for Essex County Council (ECC) the place service committee held its first meeting on Thursday (April 23) since the lockdown over Zoom to discuss the climate change commission that has been created to tackle ECC’s carbon footprint.
Samantha Kennedy, director for environment and climate change action, said that the coronavirus has shown businesses and individuals what can be achieved and hoped the new ECC climate change commission will reflect the new way of doing business that many firms have been forced into due to isolation rules.
The creation of the commission was announced last year when ECC agreed the earmarking of £5 million to drive the council’s climate change obligations.
Ms Kennedy said: “The council has demonstrated you can undertake this kind of work in a virtual world and the Covid crisis has forced us to do things on line that we never thought were possible before.
“And actually we are making it work.
“This is a way of delivering this kind of endeavour which ordinarily we would expect people to travel quite significantly to attend meetings.
“We are demonstrating we are able to do the same level of work without requiring the carbon intensive journeys on the back of it.
“I’m quite excited for us to be a trailblazer in this space and demonstrating we can maintain a level of commitment and engagement via a virtual forum.
“What Covid has also shown is that we can deliver change on a previously unimagined level quite quickly, and I think it has shown we can drive things that we thought were unimaginable very quickly and we have an opportunity to be bold in our thinking about what is and what is not possible.
“I’m hoping the commission will help us think about that.”
It is believed that COVID-19 has decreased global CO2 emissions by around six per cent, but net emissions are still increasing.
Over the two-year life of a new commission it has set up to reach its goal, ECC says that ultimately it needs in year one to identify ways in which it can mitigate the effects of climate change, improve air quality, reduce waste across Essex and increase the amount of green infrastructure and biodiversity in the county by drawing on in-house expertise, commissioning research and forming new external partnerships.
In year two it wants to explore how it can attract investment in natural capital and low carbon growth.
The task for the council is significant – in 2017/18 the authority was responsible for the production of 206,000 tonnes of CO2.
The commission is to produce an interim report to cabinet half way through the first year of inception, and make a further report to cabinet, complete with a set of recommendations at the end of the first year on a net zero action plan for Essex.
In the second year, the commission will monitor the implementation of the recommendations in year one and provide further advice and guidance on an investment plan for Essex as it moves to a sustainable, net zero economy.
Ms Kennedy added: “Where we see the Covid crisis as a current international challenge and disaster, climate change absolutely falls into that same category.
“It is a large-scale international challenge that requires global actions.
“And that we are able to respond to one crisis effectively gives me quite a lot of hope that we are able to do the same thing for the climate crisis in the future.”
Some parts of Chelmsford have seen pollution more than halve, as residents are urged to stay at home due to coronavirus.
Baddow Road, where the air is monitored by a machine next to Meadgate Avenue, has seen a particularly steep decrease in the most harmful pollutants.
On Tuesday, March 24, the day after the Prime Minister’s announcement of more extreme measures, traffic was down 53 per cent compared to the same time last year.
This continued to increase throughout the week, reaching a 60 per cent reduction compared to last year by Thursday, March 26.
Ms Kennedy added: “I very much hope that we will be able to embed some of the behaviour changes we have seen to remove journeys because the air quality benefits and climate change benefits have been really significant and we would want to bank that as a way of working going forward.
“There are benefits for businesses, individuals, as well as the environment in taking that approach.”
Committee member Cllr Ivan Henderson said a “vast amount of investment” is still needed to allow a transport shift to walking and cycling more practicable and said he was worried the climate benefits the coronavirus disaster is producing in the short term may soon be lost.
Ms Kennedy said: “Our experiences have shown that we can manage without a lot of the journeys we were taking previously.
“If we can rethink some of our working practices to encourage more to work from home we can take pressure off the network right across the board and we have seen people really enjoying walking in their local areas and cycling safely with their children in empty streets and having confidence to do that because of the low traffic levels and I wonder what the appetite will be to retain the ability to do that as we move into recovery.
“There is a balance to be struck.
“There is no doubt that our current transport network is too carbon intensive and we have to change it.
“But we have an opportunity now to maximize low impact active travel solutions that relieve some of the cost pressures around massively building out public transport when we can work from home more and not make those journeys at all.
“That is not to duck the cost questions.
“There are investment decisions that are going to have to be required.
“That will be for councillors to make on the back of the commission and what investments ECC wants to make and what we think will be the most appropriate to move us to a more sustainable set of transport solutions.”