We have been hearing about it in the news almost every day, until it was supplanted by other issues. The run-up to BREXIT, the general election, floods, and now the Coronavirus pandemic have made us all temporarily dump the issue and public attention is now fully occupied with the control of the global pandemic.
The mainstream media have highlighted the drop in climate-change gases – a direct link to a significant reduction in both travel and manufacturing following global lockdown.
From a planetary perspective, the drop is not highly significant and as soon as lockdown finishes, we will probably revert to our old ways very quickly.
Having said that, I am hopeful that state governments will use the opportunity to consolidate some of the steps that have been taken to enable the use of alternative means of transport – making that small reductions permanent.
We have seen cities around the world banning vehicular traffic from city streets, together with enhancing cycle lanes and pedestrian routes, making it easier and cleaner to travel.
This is nowhere near enough, but at least it is showing that people can get around large cities safely without using a car or public transport.
All the media focus revolves primarily around the ever-increasing levels of air pollution that are triggering climate change, rising sea levels and rising temperature.
There is, however, an interesting health issue that lurks in the sidelines.
As a species, we rely on breathing air, from which we extract oxygen, and then exhale CO2, together with other gases such as Nitrogen and Methane, and some organic compounds.
In order for our bodies to function correctly we rely on our lungs to absorb oxygen and exhale the CO2 in the correct ratios.
The composition of the air that we breathe is 78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, and 1% Argon. There are also traces of CO2, and rare gases such as Xenon, Neon, Helium, Methane.
As we increase the levels of CO2 in the air, our lungs will be unable to exhale the surplus and this will be absorbed into the body, which will have an effect.
According to a recent study conducted by the University of Colorado in Boulder, The Colorado School of Public Health, and the University of Pennsylvania, evidence suggests that future levels of CO2 may severely impair our cognitive ability.
The study based its research on two scenarios; one, a world where human society reduces the amount of CO2 it releases into the atmosphere, and the other where we don’t – “business as usual.”
Alarmingly, even when we do reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that we release into the ecosystem, by the year 2100, individuals would still be exposed to elevated levels (by today’s standards) of CO2 leading to a 25% decrease in cognitive abilities.
The reduction in mental ability is caused by an increase in CO2 in the brain, a condition called Hypercapnia. which leads to a reduction in brain/blood oxygen (Hypoxemia).
The result is a reduction in brain activity, decreased levels of arousal and excitability. On top of this, it induces sleepiness, and anxiety, the result of which is an impact on our cognitive functions such as learning, memory, strategising and crisis management.
This is easily understood. Who hasn’t been in a lecture room, classroom or meeting room, where our concentration wanders, and we get tired and disengaged. The result of excess CO2 released by a lot of individuals. The solution is normally to open a window to let in some fresh air.
But what if the air outside was not really fresh at all?
A report in 2001 (Robertson) argued that even slightly elevated levels of CO2 (720 parts per million) could cause lowered pH in the blood (acidosis) leading to restlessness, mild hypertension and ultimately confusion.
The report concluded that if we continue with “business as usual”, flagrantly releasing megatons of CO2 into the atmosphere, by 2100 we could see our cognitive functions reduced by as much as 50%.
Unless we build on this virally-induced reduction in CO2 and continue to decrease global pollution, we may survive this.
If not, we, as a race, are doomed to become the joint recipients of the last-ever Darwin Awards.
Unless you have been living on the Cook Islands for the last few months, you will have heard of Corona Virus, now known as COVID 19.
The virus is officially a global pandemic, and is now rampaging across every continent, leaving a trail of dead.
Here in the United Kingdom, we are in a state of national emergency, and state-sanctioned lockdown is in effect, with only absolutley essential journeys authorised. All retail shops except those selling essential supplies such as food, maedicines and perhaps bizzarely, alcohol are closed.
The London Underground has shut stations across its network, and passengers figures are plummeting.
Working at home has been the norm for many workers. As a result, the economy is in freefall, with the retail and hospitality sectors being worst hit. Clubs, pubs, cinemas, churches, sports centres, museums and public buildings are now all closed for the immediate future.
The aviation and maritime sectors have been quick to feel the impact of travel restrictions, and many airports are struggling as flights have become virtually non-existent, passenger traffic stagnated, and many airlines now trying to mitigate their losses by flying freight.
Whilst the global shutdown is severely damaging both our manufacturing and financial economies, we are reaping some form of benefit; pollution levels have dropped across the planet, and air quality is improving.
It’s not just transport that contributes to atmospheric pollution – industrial and manufacturing activities have fallen across the UK and Europe as countries shutdown their economies to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
This shows that it is possible to stop climate change, but the societal costs are far too high to make this acceptable.
I do believe that when the virus is contained or burnt out, we will emerge from lockdown and social distancing as a changed society.
So, what may happen?
Many firms that up until recently were resistant to their employees working remotely will have seen that some of their “trust issues” have been proved to be unfounded and that staff have been as productive, if not more productive that when working at the office.
Bearing in mind the cost of office space, many companies may find the savings realised by using smaller premises make remote working desirable.
After a major pandemic such as this one, people may be far more cautious about personal hygeine, and become much more concerned to see that public areas are properly sanitised. This could have an effect on the practice of hot desking at work.
The travelling public will probably also need to see evidence that public transport is cleaned and sanitised far more regulalrly and effectively than currently.
The lack of public trust in the health security of public transport could trigger more car use, as people seek to protect themselves with more regularised self isolating. Even car sharing could become less popular as people choose not ot sit in close proximity with another individual on their commute.
Who can really say?
If thousands more people take up remote working, there may well be more economic pain ahead for public transport operators.
Railway and air journeys that used to be undertaken for business meetings may well now be conducted using video conferencing using internet platforms such as Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams.
Will our current level of communications network provision be sufficient to accommodate this?
Individuals that were reluctant to order shopping on-line, or use home delivery services prior to COVID 19 have now been using them out of necessity, and many of these people will now be sold on the advantages, leading to further decline of England’s high streets.
Individuals that were previously regular patrons of theatre and cinema will have become adept at streaming movies and watching “live” performances from the comfort of their own homes, using YouTube, Netflix or Amazon Prime.
The question is – will they return to the cinemas and thatres with quite the same degree of regularity as they did before?
It seems that the mainstream media have been focusing on the leisure and retail industries and whilst they do report on the struggle for our manufacturing industries, they do not highlight the underlying problems.
In the UK there is evidence that our contingency planning for a “Hard Brexit” triggered our government to closely examine our logisitcal supply chains with the involvement of the retail and distirbution industries, and this has surely helped ensure that truly essential items remained on the supermarket shelves, despite the media-induced panic buying.
The other aspect to this is the lack of resilience that our manufacturers have against supply chain failures.
Whilst numerous products are proudly made here in the UK, few are totally built here. Huge numbers of manufacturers import sub-assemblies, parts and components from overseas which are used to build their product.
The world’s biggest exporter, China, is, to all intents and purposes, the birthplace of COVID19, and also its primary exporter. The subsequent lockdown of the Chinese economy led to an abundance of British manufacturers struggling to obtain the raw materials, parts, components and sub-components needed to build and sell their own products..
This may result in a baseline realignment of our logisitical networks, and maybe re-initiate inward investment.
Who knows, we may see a slow transformation back into a manufacturing economy again.
This is a bit of a mixed bag then; at more localised levels the possible resulting drop in bus and train usage could lead to more cars on the road, each contributing to climate change. On the other hand, more people at home reduces traffic of any kind on the roads.
There are so many possible futures that could result from the aftermath of CV19, which only action at government level can establish.
This could be a great opportunity for each state to re-evaluate its’s strategies for handling pandemics, and may trigger new systems to increase the robustness of manufacturing bases.
Who knows, it may even give us the required impetus to design an improved model for society that will offer progress on controlling our nemesis of irreversible climate change.
A few years ago, I had a bit of a weird experience.
It started in the deep midwinter pre-dawn. Trudging to the bus stop along a dark, bleak country lane. In the gleam of my torch, I could see that the landscape wore a cloak of crisp white hoar frost – frost that crunched satisfyingly under my highly polished boots.
Standing at the bus stop, I was suddenly struck by a great feeling of déjà vu. I was approaching my sixties, and yet I was instantly transported back about four decades.
Back then, I was a teenager, embarking on my career as a trainee technician apprentice for Post Office Telecommunications, now known simply as BT
The winter dawns when I started my commute to work were as cold and dark as this particular morning. I used to make the ten-minute walk to the sleepy East Grinstead railway station, my breath smoking around me as I strode along.
The 291 London Country Bus would normally be sitting at the bus stop, pumping huge clouds of greasy grey diesel smoke into the pre-dawn air. The bus was always numbingly cold. I often thought it was warmer outside than in, but I would be wrapped up in my thick coat, wearing a hat, and woolen gloves that my Mother had knitted me.
At around about 0630, the scheduled departure time, the driver would, if he felt so inclined, pull off rapidly, causing the tired suspension to creak and rattle loudly over the rutted and potholed rural roads.
Lurching alarmingly through quiet country lanes, the bus would stop in hamlets and villages, picking up weary sleep-drugged passengers, reluctantly pacing like automatons into their working days.
Stopping in the village of Ashurst Wood, my friend Katrina would board the bus. Wearing her ubiquitous duffle coat, she would wriggle her ampleness next to me on the seat, her figure disguised under the acres of blanket-like material. I would press against her, feeling her form against my arm, the tantalising press of her prominent bosom sending hormones scurrying around my brain like sex starved mice.
She would openly flirt with me, as the bus wheezed its asthmatic way up Wall Hill, and then we would grip the seat handles as the driver, whom I assumed to be having a psychotic episode, would plummet crazily down the steep hill towards the country town of Forest Row.
Next, we would pick up Darlene, the frizzy haired Aussie who brightened my mornings with her sunny disposition and shortly after, Stuart and Will.
Stuart and Will were as unalike as could be possible. Stuart was tall, and impossibly thin, with long, lank hair, and a quiet disposition.
Will was his alter ego – shorter, mop headed and rumbustious – he was the life and soul of any party.
Pulling into Colemans Hatch we would pick up Gary, who was urbane, dapper and a total eccentric by the age of seventeen, who would converse loudly in a wonderful upper-class drawl.
The bus would then wend its way through Hartfield, where we would collect Lisa and Penny, both of whom were taking a course in Nannying and Nursing at West Kent College.
Into Withyham, and on into Groombridge, for yet another snails crawl grind up Groombridge Hill, the driver disguising our position with the clever use of diesel exhaust smoke.
Langton Green next and then the slow crawl through the western outskirts of Tunbridge Wells.
By this time the bus was happily filled with a cacophony of voices, all competing for priority with the barely subdued roar of the ancient diesel rattling away at the back of the elderly dilapidated contraption.
As soon as the bus came to a stop at Tunbridge Wells Central, it would be an utter, mad, maniacal dash to cross the road, and get down the steps and onto the railway station platform in order to catch the 0840 train to Tonbridge.
The train was always packed, and I don’t think I ever got a seat on it. Back then, the entire carriage was full of commuters, the majority smoking and reading their newspapers in silence.
This was a complete contrast to my recent journeys on the train, where the carriage was still full of commuters, but hardly a paper in sight. Everyone was either texting on their phones, listening to music players or tapping away on a lap top or iPad. And not a cigarette or e-cigarette in sight.
Once at Tonbridge, I would join the meandering human crocodile of students heading for the Brook Street Campus.
By that time, I would be on my 5th or 6th cigarette. Players No 6, or Guards – or if I was feeling delicate, Consulate Menthol King Size.
I can’t believe how much I used to smoke in those days. I must have reduced my life expectancy by a huge amount. I have been clean now for thirty odd years, and I’m probably saving not only my life, but about £4,650 per year!
And now, here I was, standing at a bus stop in the same weather, and at the same time of day. The point of origin is different, as is the destination. The bus is now a modern single decker, with a fuel-efficient engine, and is relatively quiet. My fellow commuters look the same though, tired, cold, and longing for their warm beds, from which they were rudely prised by an insistent alarm clock scant minutes earlier.
It does appear, however, that across recent contemporary history, all bus drivers have been selected because of their underlying psychiatric tendencies. It must be a recruitment requirement. This driver was either colour blind, or had problems with authority, as we jumped at least two red traffic lights en-route to Reading Station.
This time, I was in no mad rush – I had left myself plenty of time to get to Central London. The concourse of the station was already thronged with travellers, muffled up against the chill.
I attempted to issue my ticket at the self-ticketing machine, but to no avail. I then realised that I was trying to obtain a South West Railways ticket from a First Great Western machine. Oh, the joys of technology and rail franchising.
Having queued for a ticket, I made my way to platform 8, and awaited the arrival of the First Great Western 0758 “service” to Paddington.
The train was bang on time, and I boarded, to find that my reserved seat already had a corpulent, sallow woman sitting in it. As there were a number of other vacant seats, I dropped into the nearest available and re-read my presentation notes.
Ah yes…. My presentation. I had been wrestling with the finer points of my presentation, and had worked late into the previous night getting the order right, and fine tuning the PowerPoint slides.
“You are required to give a fifteen-minute presentation on what you perceive as being the biggest challenges faced by the faculty of Engineering and Mathematics in relation to delivering course content that combines high quality technical content whilst acknowledging and embracing cultural diversity and inclusion”
I was applying for the Senior Lecturer vacancy at one of the large London universities but my obviously simplistic interpretation on reading the advert, was that I would be passing on my extensive knowledge and understanding to students within my specialisation of Heavy Commercial Aircraft Operations and Performance – but it seems that I would also need to be much more…sensitive.
Sighing, I closed the lid on my lap top, and reviewed my fellow passengers. Most were hard at work on open lap tops, and a few were mumbling intensely into mobile phones. Only a very tiny minority were conducting leisure activities such as reading a book, or a newspaper.
This would appear to be the modern work ethos. Travel to work whilst working. Then put in a ten or twelve hour day, and then work some more on the commute home. Fourteen hours a day, and get paid for eight.
I think my Father’s generation were the last to enjoy their commute; my dear old Dad became a very well-read man after commuting for two hours a day by train for sixteen years, and he would read just about anything from autobiographies to science fiction. I used to benefit from his addiction as he would frequently wander in to my room and toss a book to me, saying “Read that, I think you’ll like it”.
I always did like his recommendations…
As a young lad attending college, and travelling by train, I used to spend the journey gazing out of the window, watching the English country landscape whizz by in a blur. Or engaging in fantasies involving some of the elegant ladies on board. I used to often enjoy reading the discarded newspapers left by fellow commuters, and would avidly soak up the latest news.
It seems that now, the young are disconnected from reality whilst connected to their phones, and commuting is now part of the working day, rather than a brief respite for those that work for a living.