Covid's economic impact cannot be allowed to damage our fight against climate change – Christine Jardine MP

I love penguins. There is something in the way the gawky on-land gait seems almost designed to hold them back that simultaneously tugs at the heart-string and provokes a smile.

But seeing them stroll along a suburban street in South Africa on the BBC this week catapulted them to new levels of charm.

Most importantly, this was not a staged performance but was actually a sneaky recording of one of our co-habitants on the planet making use of the new freedoms that the pandemic has offered them.

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They are far from the only example we have seen in the past year.

A group of wild mountain goats were spotted strolling through the Welsh town of Llandudno near the start of the crisis.

And others, including a leopard venturing into a lodge at an African tourist resort, feature in Sir David Attenborough’s latest documentary, The Year Earth Changed. That might sound like an ambitious claim but evidence is emerging everywhere that there may be a germ of truth in it.

If we think for a moment just about our own carbon footprints in the past year and the differences in our behaviour.

My car has sat outside almost unused for the best part of the crisis. Air traffic in and out of all of our airports has reduced dramatically.

Penguins are among the animals to have been spotted in urban areas amid the quiet of global Covid lockdowns. As we recover from the pandemic, humanity must find better ways to live alongside wildlife (Picture: Simon Cooper/PA)

And I had a pleasant surprise this week when I checked the air quality monitor on St John’s Road in Corstorphine.

One of the most polluted stretches of road in Scotland, where every breath can have an unpleasant dirty feel, it registered low levels this week.

But before we start to celebrate any emerging victory over climate change, we have to make sure that these do not become just transient blips on our route to disaster.

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That we don’t go into the Cop26 UN climate summit this autumn patting ourselves on the back for finding a way of making progress in the challenge of the pandemic and lose the opportunity it presents.

It is easy to forget now that immediately before the first reports of a new virus in China our attention was focused on natural disasters. Bush fires raging across Australia and the US while the ice cap receded presented a clear and present danger.

Cop26 was then regarded by many as an opportunity, perhaps our last, to harness the popular demand for change being expressed in protests across the globe.

Now we find ourselves faced with an argument over how that event itself should proceed: as an in-person event for representatives from across the globe or a more virtual online experience.

On the one hand, changes along those lines could disadvantage representatives in countries where internet connections are not as strong.

On the other hand, do we really want to be encouraging long haul flights for a conference designed in part at least to discourage them?

It’s a conflict of demands that we will have to address not just for major events but in our own careers and personal lives if we are to ever to achieve the change we need.

Holidays and business trips may have to be rethought and air travel made more sustainable and alternative fuels found.

Electric cars were developed more than a century ago, but it is less than 25 years since the ground-breaking Toyota Prius hybrid was launched onto the market.

Even now, although every manufacturer seem to offers at least one electric or hybrid option, we still don’t have the network of rapid charging points we need.

Developing an effective alternative for air transport will not be easy but we have to ensure that the industry’s recovery from the crisis goes hand in hand with a transition to a much greener and more sustainable approach.

But we cannot afford to tackle only one crisis at a time.

We need our governments not just to regard our animal neighbours enjoying more freedom as we lose ours as another internet sensation, but to see it as a wake-up call.

And one they must answer in this election. The issue is, I am pleased to say, an ever-present in modern campaigning.

My own party, the Scottish Liberal Democrats, has a green thread running through every chapter of its manifesto. And that is how government needs to address the problem. Holistically.

Move one million homes to zero-emission heating by 2030, doubling the programmes to end fuel poverty. Invest in new skills for a just transition from fossil fuel industries as demand drops and set a target of 100 per cent of energy generated in Scotland to come from renewables by 2030.

The principle that Scottish electricity should be “100 per cent renewable for 100 per cent of the time” should be non-negotiable.

And we must make sure that Scotland takes forward an ambitious strategy for using hydrogen for diverse energy needs.

To do that we will need a good share of the UK government’s investment from its own hydrogen strategy, not least the research into blending green hydrogen with natural gas.

But it’s all possible. The economic impact of the public health catastrophe does not mean that we have to go back to ‘old ways’ in our approach to the climate any more than it does in tackling poverty and inequality.

If there has been any benefit to the past year, it is surely in having given us time to stop and consider what change could actually look like. We need to be bold.

Our natural neighbours are gently reclaiming what we have taken. It’s up to us to make the changes that will allow us to share the future.

Christine Jardine is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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