“This pandemic was one 100 percent predicted”

Maarten Hajer about long term consequences of COVID-19

Since mid-March, not an hour goes by without you reading, hearing or seeing something about corona. Many will have had more than enough of this by now. But COVID-19 is among us and we have no choice but to deal with it. Now the number of infections is going down and the government measures are eased, the question arises: what does this pandemic mean for our future? Will the world change drastically? In this series, scientists of Utrecht University outline their expectations. 

To what extent will corona have consequences for how we arrange our work in the upcoming years? Is this crisis good or bad news for the climate, the economy and our interaction with animals in the long run? Will the virus result in permanent changes to our social interactions and will it possibly lead to sustainable reforms in education, healthcare and urban and regional  planning?

To start off this series we meet Maarten Hajer and speak about sustainability and urban planning. Hajer is Distinguished Professor of Urban Futures and scientific director of the university-wide strategic theme Pathways to Sustainability.

Maarten, from a sustainability perspective, this pandemic does have some advantages, right? Far less cars, planes and polluting industry…
“Yes, the air is significantly cleaner now. It is doubtable, however, if opposite the tragedy of corona victims, lives are extended due to the better air quality. My colleague Roel Vermeulen, Professor of Environmental Epidemiology and Exposome Science, explains more about this in a blog in NRC.

The effect of the reduced CO2 emission is only a drop in the bucket. CO2 accumulates, so the consequences for climate change are very little. On top of that: will this crisis accelerate the sustainability transition or will it slow it down instead? In our research we see that Dutch industry has been hit by corona so severely that it isn’t a priority for them to join us for ‘a nice chat’ about sustainable scenario’s for the future. They don’t have time or money for sustainability right now; first they want to recover.”

That doesn't sound very hopeful.
“Politicians have to take a clear position and use the crisis as an opportunity. Take KLM, for instance. If you promise billions of Euro’s in relief funds, which sustainability conditions will you  set? And what about Brussels? Will there be a successful connection between COVID and Frans Timmermans's Green Deal?

We can’t really financially afford to restore the old industry and only look at sustainability again afterward. It's wise to aim for resilience now. Corona was a test and we failed. But climate change is going to test the resilience of our society even more. An economy that ignores environmental problems such as the climate or nitrogen is working towards the next crisis. A resilient society looks ahead and anticipates, and accounts for disruption.” 

Do you foresee any permanent changes, apart from politics?
“A number of behavioural changes that occurred during corona will have a permanent influence on the environmental profile of our lifestyle. For example, people will probably keep working from home more often. In the corporate world, people are also having a critical look at the endless trips for meetings. People have experienced that video conferences work quite well. I think we're also going to keep flying less in the tourist sector; people are uncertain about international travel. So, considering the small profit margins in the aviation industry, it is nearly unimaginable that it will keep continuing to grow like it used to.

In the history books, some developments will also unjustly be attributed to corona. For instance, before the pandemic, investors were already moving away from the polluting industry.”

In a recent interview on BNR-nieuwsradio, you expressed the expectation that cities will be organised differently. Which changes do you expect?
“I foresee a new mix of living and working; people will combine it more. This requires something other than purely residential neighbourhoods. It's interesting to see whether or not some of the current temporary measures will become permanent. Like the pavements by the canals in Amsterdam. They are too narrow for a 1.5-metre society, so the discussion on whether or not parts of the inner city should be made car-free has flared up. Wide pavements are also being built in Paris, Vienna and Toronto, and broad bicycle paths in Milan. The question is: is that temporary or is it the new normal?

Something that corona has greatly accelerated - in Paris and Sidney, among others - is the idea of the ’20-minute city’. Those are ideal cities …” Laughing: “Yes, kind of like Utrecht, where everything you need is no more than twenty minutes away, so you can walk or cycle to it. Many cities want to improve the bicycle infrastructure for this reason. Utrecht should get ready for all the delegations that'll come here to look at the bicycle streets, the bicycle infrastructure and the mega multi-story bicycle-parking facility.

In a city like Milan, I think the attention for bicycle infrastructure is not only environmentally-motivated, but comes from the idea of self-preservation as well. Cycling is still very unusual there, also because it's simply very dangerous. But because of corona people prefer not to use the underground anymore either. It's difficult to motivate people to do something because of the climate, but now that they say: ‘On a bicycle in the open air, you have less chance to get infected than when all of you are underground in the subway,’ people are listening. Also purchasing a bicycle is now additionally being subsidised.” 

Which lessons can we learn from corona?
“This pandemic was one hundred percent predicted. The only thing we didn't know was when it was going to happen. In broad-scale sustainability research, a big connection is being made between COVID-19 and the overpressure of society on the natural system. Zoonoses get opportunities because natural systems get disrupted. So the health problems are actually sustainability problems, and they need to be seen as a warning to the social and economic systems. Adjusting the socio-economic system to its natural context is one of the big challenges of our time.

Corona could very well bring health and environmental policies closer together. And that can be very good news for the politics of sustainability. Because health is something people are highly motivated on.”

Would you like to know more?
Please also read the climate blog in NRC by economist Heleen Toxopeus, in which she argues in favour of more nature in the city

Click on the banner for the episode of the series 'The world after/with corona' with Marc Bonten