By Professor Marcel Jaspars

WE’RE beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel as lockdown restrictions start to ease in Scotland following continuing declines in the rate of infection.

It has prompted a lot of debate about the “new normal”. It’s a phrase as synonymous with the pandemic as “unprecedented times” and, while they may be buzz words, there is truth in their meaning.

The modern world has never experienced anything like this. Economies around the world have ground to a halt as governments scrambled to control the spread of the virus.

Modern life does not offer many – if any – opportunities to monitor the impact of switching off the economy. While it has taken a substantial toll, the lockdown has given us this opportunity and we must not waste it.

I’m sure we have all noticed the way the air seems clearer and nature seems louder and livelier during lockdown. That’s not a coincidence; the complete cessation of economic activities has lowered the detrimental impact on the environment.

To borrow a phrase, this is an unprecedented time to explore additional ways of tackling the climate crisis.

Eighteen national academies and science societies across the Commonwealth have joined forces to urge governments to address climate change and biodiversity loss and, in particular, ensure global economic recovery from Covid-19 is environmentally sustainable. The Commonwealth academies’ statement on climate change, biodiversity and sustainable energy, which the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) has signed as Scotland’s national academy, sends a call to action to heads of state to take urgent action. It warns that failure to tackle these combined challenges in the increasingly narrowing timescale required will pose significant risk to human development and welfare, societal inequalities, and impact all Commonwealth countries and globally.

Addressing climate change and biodiversity loss must be a core theme on the road to recovery. We must explore the possibility of changing the way we live – creating a “new normal” – to develop sustainable economic growth, cheap, clean energy and better public health; tackle poverty and inequality; limit global warming; and replace biodiversity loss. We need to address difficult questions, including the impact of humans encroaching on wildlife and their natural habitats, which increases the risk of viruses, like Covid-19, transmitting between species.

In all cases, planning and action is needed now, including further research to complete our knowledge gaps and translate research into policy. Global leadership is also required, which is present, but has not met the necessary scale of action.

Key events have been delayed, including COP26 and COP15, raising the risk that efforts to address climate change will also be delayed. More research and planning can be conducted in the meantime, but without the opportunity to meet and ratify decisions, certain joint actions cannot be progressed.

The RSE has established a Post-Covid-19 Futures Commission to support Scotland in emerging as positively as it can from the current pandemic. It brings together leading practitioners and thinkers to identify and address immediate policy implications and challenges arising from the coronavirus outbreak and support thinking around some of the bigger questions it raises. This is a progressive step towards building a more resilient and fairer society informed by evidence, expertise, and public dialogue.

We need to see this replicated on a wider, global scale. We need to see Commonwealth heads of Government working together to address these challenges inclusively and equitably, in a timely fashion, and ensure the planet will be habitable for future generations.

Professor Marcel Jaspars is Vice-President International of the RSE