Online classes, video meetings: can coronavirus spur low-carbon habits?

Published March 16, 2020
The virus has swiftly turned ideas into a large-scale, real-time trial. è Ramsha Jahangir/File
The virus has swiftly turned ideas into a large-scale, real-time trial. è Ramsha Jahangir/File

As coronavirus sweeps the Seattle area, with more than 20 deaths so far in one of the worst outbreaks in the United States, the University of Washington last week shuttered its classrooms in a bid to contain the spread of the disease.

But lecturer Ian Schnee’s philosophy class for 300 students took place as scheduled — just online. Eighty tuned in live, with more expected to watch the recording later.

Schnee’s other teaching also happened virtually, with 20 students joining a video-streaming chat room to share answers to logic problems and ask questions before upcoming exams.

“I could share my desktop and other students could share theirs,” the same as with the office whiteboard, he said. “Doing it virtually was a pretty rich experiment.” Recently, some of the university’s 40,000 students and professors have been exploring options to curb planet-warming emissions, in part through greater use of video-conferencing technology.

But restrictions triggered by coronavirus have swiftly turned ideas into a large-scale, real-time trial.

“It’s become de facto a massive experiment in education,” Schnee told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone. “It’s like a crash course in new technology.” As a growing coronavirus pandemic shuts down conferences, transport, schools and sporting events worldwide, it is also nudging people toward new behaviours and technologies that may have lasting impacts on the emissions driving climate change.

Not all are positive. The threat of contracting the virus, for instance, is pushing some public transport users into taxis to avoid crowds — though others are taking to bicycles and other green means of getting around.

And a global slowdown in air travel, which has curbed emissions so far this year, could bounce back with a delayed surge in demand for flights if the virus tails off, climate experts warn.

But as organisers of conferences, political negotiations and classes scramble to switch to digital events — and even doctors consult online to try to avoid spreading the virus ­— huge amounts of emissions from travel, in particular, are being avoided, creating a knock-on effect that could persist.

New tele-commuters

Japan is one example of a country getting its first real taste of working from home, in a culture that has never adopted that option.

“Japan doesn’t have a ‘working at home’ policy. People go to work whether they are sick or not,” said Niklas Hhne of the German-based New Climate Institute, which supports action to address climate change.

“But now with coronavirus, they can’t do that, so they are learning to work at home — and they might continue doing it. It might lead to a consistent change in behavioural patterns and lower emissions,” said the emissions reductions expert.

In virus-hit Seattle, big employers such as Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Google all have urged or allowed staff to work remotely.

“There’s definitely a tele-commuting movement going on, not just at the university but all around Seattle,” Schnee said.

When classrooms shut for at least two weeks starting on Monday (March 9) at the University of Washington, “it was so sudden a lot of students felt at sea and a lot of faculty were scrambling”, he said.

But three days on, “there’s much less scepticism (among professors), and an acceptance that even though it’s not their normal experience they can pull it off,” the lecturer said.

They might even acquire the skills to be comfortable continuing with it, he predicted.

Kelly Levin, an emissions specialist with the Washington-based World Resources Institute (WRI), said the coronavirus experience could spur a rethink about whether big international meetings are worth the huge environmental and financial costs.

“This is giving us some space to pause and re-evaluate,” she said, noting virtual meetings also can benefit some groups, from disabled participants to those who can’t travel for family or other reasons.

Colin Marshall, who organises seminars for the University of Washington’s philosophy department, said a pre-virus commitment to begin having 15 per cent “virtual” speakers had allowed them to land an April guest they had otherwise failed for years to attract.

Technology offers the possibility “to make academia more equitable and just better”, he said. “More people will be in a position to be involved in things that weren’t before.”


But virtual conferencing is not well suited to everyone, warned Anna Schulz, who works on climate policy with some of the world’s least-developed countries for the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development.

Where internet is patchy or unreliable — a problem in many poorer parts of the world — holding negotiations or conferences online would “further marginalise vulnerable voices,” she said.

As she and colleagues prepare for November’s UN climate summit in Glasgow, “we’re in the process of trying to rethink what diplomacy looks like in the face of an inability to meet with people,” she said. As the pandemic stretches around the globe, there may be time for new habits to take hold, some of them lower-carbon.

“Behavioural sciences suggest a disruption is one of the few things that can disturb habits,” WRI’s Levin said.

But how much the coronavirus will cut emissions — or reduce in a lasting way high-carbon activities such as flying — remains unclear, analysts said. “There are a lot of unknowns right now,” Levin said.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, March 16th, 2020

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