How tackling Covid-19 is helping us fight climate change
The arrival of COVID-19 was a crisis that few foresaw. Almost overnight, organisations and individuals had to adapt to the realities of life under a global pandemic.
Across the UK, people started doing things differently, seeking solutions to the most pressing problems — from business who pivoted to make hand sanitiser and face masks to scientists who redirected their research to fight the disease.
Their work responded to the unique set of circumstances that coronavirus created, and yet it also gives us the chance to create lasting, positive, change. Many of the innovations to come out of Covid-19 could play a part in addressing one of humanity’s greatest challenges: climate change.
Rent, don’t buy: a sustainable way forward for fashion?
The fashion industry is one of the world’s least sustainable sectors, with clothing companies projected to account for a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.
Scottish fashion business ACS has been working to correct this, championing a more circular system that would allow stores to rent rather than sell clothes, and refurbish currently unusable returns. But rent and return has a number of challenges, including how to clean worn garments without environmental damage.
When the first COVID-19 lockdown was called, ACS’s business dried up. So they used the time, and support funding, to develop a more sustainable business model.
That helped them develop their ozone laundry system, which allows attire to be washed at low temperatures while still eliminating harmful bacteria and viruses.
“With ozone, besides disinfection, you also have enhanced stain removal,” explains Emmanuel Epelle, a chemical engineer working with ACS. “This means you have reduced usage of detergent and require fewer wash cycles, so we can cut down on electricity consumption.”
Ozone also has added benefits for garment longevity, allowing a rental item to be worn more times before replacement is required.
ACS hopes to take this heightened sustainability to the next level, pioneering a new system that increases efficiency by automatically extracting the ozone after the cycle has finished while removing the need to manually load and unload garments.
Delivering medicines to isolated locations — with drones
With coronavirus spreading fast in early 2020, communities across the country were forced into isolation. For remote and hard-to-reach places, this confinement presented serious logistical challenges — not least the delivery of medical supplies.
To address this, specialists from three drone companies — DronePrep, Windracers, and Consortiq — teamed up with researchers from University of Southampton to explore the delivery of vital provisions to cut-off island communities. Late last year, the consortium successfully used an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to deliver 50kg of medical supplies to the Isles of Scilly, where ferry and air connections to the mainland had been disrupted during the pandemic.
This drone technology is now being trialled as a low-carbon means of delivering mail to remote settlements. In October 2021, a joint project from the Royal Mail and Windracers saw low emissions autonomous drones deliver packages to residents of the Orkney Islands in northern Scotland.
“Our autonomous system will deliver an all-weather service for the community and significantly lower carbon emissions,” said Charles Scales, Windracer’s Chief Executive Officer.
What’s the carbon footprint of Shakespeare?
With theatres closed, the performing arts were forced to go online during the pandemic; a move that brought challenges, but also the chance to channel green ambitions.
As coronavirus restrictions took hold, the Oxford-based Creation Theatre swiftly shifted its production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest onto Zoom. Despite its hurried digitalisation, the performance was a success — both in terms of critical reception, and sustainability.
“We calculate that our digital productions [lead] to a 98.9% reduction in carbon emissions,” says Lucy Askew, Creation Theatre’s Chief Executive and Creative Producer. “The production of a single sheet of 8x4ft plywood produces more carbon than a four- week run of [our] digital show.”
The theatre’s green gains were wide-reaching, from paper savings as digital marketing strategies replaced printed leaflets and posters, to reduced travel with staff and audiences based at home, and less waste created from food, drink, and other consumables on set.
Academics from the University of Exeter examined the success of The Tempest’s digital migration, drawing up a toolkit for other theatre companies keen to go green.
“[The advances in sustainability] shouldn’t be seen as temporary benefits that will disappear post-pandemic,” says Professor Pascale Aebischer, co-author of the study and COVID-19 Coordinator at the Arts and Humanties Research Council. “We’re seeing that the performing arts sector as a whole has embraced the idea of virtual productions, which means sustainability advances are here to stay.”
Bringing communities together with bread
Digitalisation has been a major theme of lockdown — but not all pandemic-era innovations relate to the virtual realm.
As the virus spread and panic- buying left supermarket shelves bare of flour and bread, the Fife-based Scotland The Bread group looked for ways to increase output of its nutritious, sustainably produced flour without compromising on energy efficiency. And they wondered if bread could be more than just food for people isolated by lockdown.
They launched Flour to the People — a project to ensure that vulnerable communities had access to both to flour and the skills and knowledge to turn it into bread. The project also used bread making as a way of creating social interaction during a time of physical distancing.
“It wasn’t always easy to find healthy, high- quality food in the early days of lockdown, so, like other small mills, we had to temporarily close our online shop to catch up with orders,” recalls Project Coordinator Lyndsay Cochrane. “That’s why we invested in additional cyclone mill technology.”
With higher energy efficiency and less grain wastage, cyclones are a sustainable alternative to traditional roller mills.
Funding for Flour to the People meant Scotland the Bread could buy a second cyclone mill, allowing for round-the-clock climate conscious flour production throughout the pandemic.
Cochrane and the team also hope that the community resilience and local supply chains started by Flour to the People will be a model for rural communities.
“We’re all about food resilience, helping communities be more self-sufficient and healthy. Low- carbon baking is part of this, and that starts with environmentally friendly flour production.”
Reopening towns and cities, but keeping the cleaner air
Reduced traffic and people in town centres during Covid-19 lockdowns led to a wealth of environmental benefits. So how do we keep these benefits as people return to offices and shops?
Environmental studies provide a wealth of data — information that can be analysed to inform green policy. But what if, instead of facts and figures on a spreadsheet, the results could be used to build a virtual 3D world for eco-minded urban planners to explore street-by-street?
That’s the vision of Slingshot Simulations, a start-up at the forefront of ‘digital twin’ technology. Digital twins are virtual representations of objects or locations that can be updated with real-time data, using simulations and AI to help designers make decisions.
“It’s a bit like Google maps on steroids, where all the data can be visualised and analysed in a three-dimensional space, then navigated around with augmented and virtual reality headsets,” explains Robert Harwood, Slingshot’s Chief Operating Officer. “With enough data, we can create digital twins of entire cities, even whole countries.”
As town centres return to relative normality, this modelling can help local authorities retain some of the environmental benefits of lockdown — such as cleaner air and less traffic — while drawing up designs for a more sustainable future.
A new housing development could be entered into the simulation, for instance, allowing planners to see how the influx of residents might affect an area’s traffic patterns. The best locations for cycle paths, bus lanes, and other low-carbon commuter options would then be calculated, minimising emissions without jeopardising economic activity.
Innovating for a greener future
The pandemic has brought formidable challenges that few could’ve foreseen. Keeping clothes virus-free without excessive energy consumption, delivering vital supplies to far-flung communities, preserving the performing arts, ensuring pantries remain sustainably stocked, and planning for a post-covid future.
An innovative spirit has helped overcome each of these hurdles. Now, as the world faces up to the threat of climate disaster, that spirit is being channelled again, helping secure a cleaner, greener future for us all.
Want to know more?
If you’re a UK taxpayer, your contributions help fund research like this via UK Research and Innovation — the UK’s largest public funder of research — and the nine research councils.
Projects in this article are funded by UKRI, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Innovate UK. You can read more about what we do here.
You can read more about Innovate UK’s work here and watch more stories from businesses Innovate supported through the pandemic here. There’s more on Innovate’s work in helping the UK reach Net Zero here.