Image of buried archaeology in rural fields visible from aerial photographs
Climate change has allowed us to catch a glimpse of archaeology previously not visible © Historic England NMR18460/19
Climate change has allowed us to catch a glimpse of archaeology previously not visible © Historic England NMR18460/19

Climate Change, Covid and Heritage

By Hannah Fluck, Head of Environmental Strategy at Historic England

In early 2020 many people across the world were beginning to realise the real implications of global climate change. The unprecedented Australian wildfires that began in November 2019 were still devastating vast areas. The UK was experiencing widespread flooding, exacerbated by storms Ciara and Dennis. 

Then we found ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic that in a matter of weeks literally brought the world to a standstill. Suddenly climate change didn’t seem like the biggest challenge in the room anymore. But the climate crisis hasn’t gone away, and as we begin to emerge from Covid-19 lockdown it’s more important than ever that we don’t forget it.

Many, including the Committee on Climate Change, have called for a green recovery that pushes the UK closer to achieving its commitment of 100% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050.

The heritage sector is undoubtedly suffering from the impacts of Covid-19. But there are opportunities for us to make our own practices more environmentally sustainable and to demonstrate the ways we are relevant to a climate resilient, sustainable future.

The climate crisis and Covid-19 are not unconnected. Commentators including the WHO, UN biodiversity experts and the WWF have drawn connections between this pandemic and our “dangerously unbalanced relationship with nature”.

The climate crisis is another facet of the breakdown of that relationship with nature. However, discussion surrounding this broken relationship often forgets the complex shared history of people and the environment. People have always shaped their environments. The traces of their activities have created, and continue to influence, our current environment and biodiversity.

Historic environment experts are well placed to tell this story, to contextualise the relationship between people and environment, to help learn from past activities and apply that knowledge to future plans.

At Historic England we are considering how this approach might help with water and flood management. Globally, the Climate Heritage Network brings together cultural heritage experts and indigenous peoples to look at valuing traditional knowledge in adapting to and mitigating climate change.

Unlike Covid-19, the cure for climate change is known: we need to stop GHG emissions. However, we all know it’s not that simple. Rapid large-scale change in actions at a pan-global scale is hard.

But Covid-19 has shown us that it is not impossible. The pandemic has given us an opportunity to find new ways of working. Ways that will both reduce our carbon footprint, and help us prepare for the challenges future climate may throw at us.

In 2016 I wrote Historic England’s Climate Change Adaptation Report. One commitment was to ‘support workforce resilience’. I was thinking more about coping with extreme weather events than pandemics. But the measures we have put in place for lockdown will stand us in good stead for a more resilient workforce against future climate challenges. For example, the video conferences that have replaced international meetings reduce air-travel.

However, the historic environment can contribute more to green recovery than a reduction in travel.

The UK Green Building Council estimates that the built environment sector is responsible for around 40% of total GHG in the UK. Our expertise in repairing and reusing buildings can help reduce emissions by avoiding the higher carbon footprint associated with constructing new buildings.

Although not the most exciting of topics, maintenance and timely repair can save money and are essential for resilience to climate change. Well maintained buildings last longer, are more energy efficient and suffer less from floods.  Maintenance and repair also have a much lower carbon footprint than replacement or recycling.

This also applies to parks and gardens. As well as providing valuable respite during lockdown, well-maintained green space helps reduce flood risk and lower temperatures.

I am fortunate to be part of a small, dedicated group of people from around the world working on raising awareness of climate change and cultural heritage. The purpose of the Climate Heritage Network is to ‘bring the power of arts, culture and heritage to climate action’.

In December 2019 the network helped represent culture and arts at the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP25). Here we launched our Culture and Heritage Climate Action Plan  – eight activities to deliver tangible outcomes for climate action.

The network is working to build a larger presence for arts, culture and heritage for COP26 (postponed until autumn 2021). Although frustrating, the additional time creates possibilities for greater collaboration and sharing of research. It has certainly not tempered our ambition that cultural heritage becomes firmly embedded in global responses to climate change.

In the Climate Heritage Network we say that ‘to solve an anthropogenic problem you need human solutions’. Cultural heritage is an essential part of those solutions. As we pick the pieces up after Covid-19 there has never been a better time to think about how we bring the power of cultural heritage to climate action.

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