The impact of COVID-19 on lives and economy has been devastating, with Indonesia having the highest coronavirus fatalities in Southeast Asia. While we practice social distancing and help those most affected by the pandemic, we also need to think about what comes after. How do we prevent future crises from ravaging our lives? A big part of the answer must be to address climate change, before it results in more frequent and worse health emergencies.

Both the coronavirus pandemic and climate crisis demand massive changes and long-term thinking at all levels — individual, national, and global — to mitigate their impact. Being prepared and responding quickly to emergencies come at a price. But the pandemic has shown us that the cost of inaction is even higher, especially for the poor and vulnerable communities.

Impact of travel

The coronavirus crisis has reshaped our behaviors and assumptions in ways that may also help us mitigate climate change. A clear example is our reduced travel, in order to prevent the spread of the virus. Before the outbreak, working remotely was hard to imagine and flight emissions were rising faster than anyone predicted. Now, many of us are staying at home and avoiding non-essential travel. We might emerge from the pandemic with a new perspective on what travel activities we actually need, and what we can give up.

Focusing on our travel emissions is a great way to understand and mitigate our environmental impact. First, the transport sector is a major contributor to emissions. According to one source in 2017, transport accounted for more than half of average annual CO2 emissions in Jakarta. Second, heavy traffic can have negative consequences on health and productivity due to air pollution and traffic congestion, and these are issues that many Indonesians care about. Thus, while transport is a key part of everyday life and connects us to places and each other, we can adapt our travel frequency and habits to benefit both the environment and ourselves.

Avoiding non-essential travel during pandemic does not only lower health risk, but also one way we can have a positive impact on the environment ourselves.

Reducing travel emissions

The Avoid-Shift-Improve (A-S-I) approach is a well-established and effective framework to reduce emissions from urban passenger transport. The A-S-I approach follows a hierarchy: “avoid” measures should be implemented first, secondly “shift” and finally the “improve” measures.

  • Avoid: Avoid travel. E.g. This pandemic has taught us that in many cases, video conferencing works just as well as in-person meetings.
  • Shift: Shift to a more environmentally friendly transport mode. E.g. In Indonesian big cities, commuters can reduce emissions by 60-90% if they switch from private transport to public transport.
  • Improve: Improve the energy efficiency of transport modes and vehicle technology. E.g. ridesharing or using cleaner fuel and vehicles.

Education and behavior change

The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. However, 45% of Indonesians still deny or do not know that climate change is happening, and that human activity is responsible. As such, the goal of WRI Indonesia’s Emission Reduction and Carbon Sequestration Initiative is to educate the public about climate change and emissions, and then empower them with opportunities to take action against climate change.

One of the ways we hope to achieve our goal of raising public awareness and promoting behavioral change to protect the environment is through our upcoming mobile application, Emisi. Using Emisi, users can calculate, reduce and sequester their transport emissions in the Indonesian context.

Emisi will encourage users to reduce emissions using the Avoid-Shift-Improve (A-S-I) hierarchy in these ways:

  • Avoid: When users choose to add a trip to their profile, the app will ask users if they really need to travel, and remind them that every trip increases emissions.
  • Shift: If a user selects a private transport mode (i.e. car or motorbike) for any part of their journey, the application will encourage users to switch to public transport (i.e. bus or train). This occurs both during and after the user adds a trip. Although emissions are actually the lowest for bus, followed by train, motorbike, and car, we choose to distinguish between public and private transport only for simplicity.
  • Improve: When inputting the number of passengers for private transport modes, users will be reminded that sharing it with more people will reduce the emissions per person.

These suggestions may not be possible all the time or for everyone. For example, public transport services may be limited in remote areas, and furthermore is not advisable currently to ensure safe distancing. But they serve as a starting point for thinking about how to reduce our travel emissions.

We welcome your feedback for the beta version of Emisi, which is available on the Google Play Store as of 22 April 2020, in commemoration with Earth Day. The final product will be released later this year.

Finding power in our choices

Our individual choices may seem insignificant. But their environmental impact is more than about directly cutting down on emissions. More importantly, our voluntary actions can trigger “behavioral contagion” and spread ideas and behaviors rapidly through society, leading to systemic change.

What happens after this pandemic is up to us, but today is the time to build back better. In one possible future, we return to ‘business as usual’ and the historic drop in emissions is temporary or even reversed. In another, the virus marks the start of long-lasting shifts in personal consumption and travel habits, and leads to radical environmental policies and collective action.

More information about this initiative can be found here.