‘Mask shaming’ is a phenomenon and a concept that none of us could even have imagined a year ago today, as we shopped and partied our way towards Christmas in the blissful ignorance of pre-Covid world.
By the middle of 2020, fierce public debates were raging about the benefits of wearing masks in shared spaces, the infringement of civil liberties, and individual responsibility. Eventually, the advice of the experts was followed, a broad consensus was achieved, laws were passed, and a majority accepted – reluctantly, yes – that wearing a mask in public places is a small sacrifice for the greater good.
That donning a mask has become second nature for many of us since then demonstrates how a novel social behaviour can go from very rare to commonplace in a matter of weeks, while forcing us to collectively re-think the old concept of self-sacrifice. We’ve also come to realise that shaming isn’t the most effective means of changing human behaviour.
However, as the UN secretary general urged every country around the world to declare climate emergencies at the weekend, I began to wonder if in trying to reach net zero there were parallels or lessons we can learn from the manner in which mask-wearing has become so widely accepted as an individual responsibility with societal benefits.
The UN’s annual report published last week confirmed what we already knew: despite a brief dip in carbon emissions in the last 10 months, the world is still heading for a temperature rise in excess of 3°C this century – far beyond the Paris agreement’s ambition of limiting global warming to 1.5°C.
On Saturday – exactly five years after committing to the Paris agreement – about 70 world leaders gathered to make new commitments to tackle the climate change at a virtual Climate Ambition summit. At the end of the conference, Britain’s business minister Alok Sharma concluded that despite making real progress, all this ambition is still “not enough”.
The alignment of Covid-recovery plans with green ambitions looks set to become a defining point of policy in the next few years and for the future of our planet.
As with the coronavirus, tackling the climate emergency requires small acts of sacrifice from each of us today, to avoid far bigger sacrifices in the future.