Pollution and the pandemic

Last week, life in the UK started to get back to normal: pubs, shops and hairdressers reopened after our third national lockdown. The end seems to be in sight – but it doesn’t mean we can just go back to life as usual.

April 22 marks Earth Day, which has become synonymous with climate change. This year’s theme is ‘Restore Our Earth’, which focuses not only on the need to reduce our impact on the planet as we recover from the effects of Covid, but also how we can play a role in repairing the damage we’ve already done.

“Saving the planet isn’t available on Amazon Prime, it’s going to take longer than two days, but we’ve got to start somewhere.” — Staci West, Digital Content Producer and increasingly an environmental activist

Bryn Jones, manager of Rathbone Ethical Bond, first told us about the Anthropocene era in a podcast. It refers to the geological age during which humans became the dominant influence on our planet’s environment. “In a thousand years’ time someone will look at the earth’s sediment and rocks and be able to look back to today and say there was climate change, the CO2 parts per million were higher and there was radioactive waste,” he said.

Other evidence of our epoch they are likely to find is plastic.

Plastics and the pandemic

The plastic problem is so large it now has a whole month dedicated to it in Plastic Free July. Single-use plastics and plastic pollution was already an enormous threat, but the pandemic has only increased it.

The UN predicts that around 75% of the used masks, as well as other pandemic-related waste, will end up in landfills, or floating in the seas. In the UK alone, if every person used a single-use face mask a day for a year, it would create an additional 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging.^

The truth is, plastic is everywhere – it’s found in cars, phones, toys, clothes, medical devices and of course packaging. It’s cotton swabs, cigarette butts, takeaway containers, toothpaste, tampons. I would go as far as to argue it’s the most important material in our economy and because it’s in (almost) every product we use and consume, it ends up everywhere too: oceans, beaches, landfills, etc.

Despite our best efforts at reduce, reuse and recycle, there is simply no efficient way to dispose of plastics and, ultimately, they’ll enter our ecosystems as microplastics. We consume these microplastics through the water we drink and the shellfish we eat. According to a study from WWF International, we may be ingesting five grams of plastic a week, or the equivalent of eating a credit card!*

According to Roland Geyer, an industrial ecologist at the University of California, “recycling helps but usually just delays its inevitable disposal. Moreover, more new plastic is made every year than is recycled. Plastic production has grown 8 percent a year for decades, that outpaces any other manufactured material.”

Lockdown, fossil fuels and CO2

Burning fossil fuels caused an estimated 4.5 million premature deaths in 2018, including the deaths of 400,000 children under the age of 5.^^ It’s estimated air pollution costs the global economy $2.9 trillion annually – or $8 billion every day.^^

The pandemic itself may have temporarily limited some activities such as travel, which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, but we still saw the long term effects of climate change last year with floods in the Philippines, wildfires in California and heatwaves in Southern Africa to name a few.

The fossil fuel sector is ripe for disruption as we start to manage its impact. Moving forward, the government has a choice about where to direct funds to the post-covid economy. The UK, Japan and European Union have all committed to the net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The UK has also banned the sale of new petrol cars by 2030.

How to deal with a situation so impossibly complex?

Just like the pandemic required joint global efforts, addressing the problem of climate change is not easy but it’s a problem that needs to be tackled head-on and no country or company, however determined, can do so on its own. Combating climate change is a group effort and the transition will require investment.

Thankfully, a number of Elite Rated funds are linked to this theme. VT Gravis UK Infrastructure, First Sentier Global Listed Infrastructure and M&G Global Listed Infrastructure all invest to varying degrees in green energy infrastructure.

The Ninety One Global Environment fund invests companies contributing to sustainable decarbonization, while the Pictet Global Environmental Opportunities fund has identified nine environmental challenges including but not limited to; climate change, ocean acidification, biodiversity and freshwater use.

John Bennett, manager of Janus Henderson European Focus said in his podcast at the start of the pandemic, “this is a Control-Alt-Delete recession” – a reset of the global economy. Now is the time to also reset our habits and lifestyles and restore our Earth before it is too late.

*Source: Reuters, 12 Jun 2019
^Source: World Economic Forum, 11 June 2020
^^Source: Global Citizen, 18 Feb 2020

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