Updated: Dec 27, 2020
‘Coronavirus has provided a stark reminder of what happens when humanity’s relationship with nature breaks down.’
- Justin Addison, Second Secretary at the UK Delegation to the OSCE, 3rd June 2020
Covid-19 has been the biggest blow to our society in generations. The economic and social costs of this pandemic are immeasurable and will be long-lasting, with Rishi Sunak stating that the economy will undergo a ‘permanent adjustment’. But as we start to move from panic mode to recovery mode, we have an opportunity to redirect global economic activity towards averting the climate crisis we currently face. The actions taken now, including the huge business bailouts from the exchequer, will determine the future of our economy, and as such, our environment. With climate change having risen up on political agendas, several countries have announced that instead of focusing on bailing out high-carbon industries, they will look at how to prioritise sustainability in their recoveries.
Both France and Scotland quickly announced huge investments in ‘green covid recoveries’, and the UK Government has also pledged to turn this into an opportunity to create green jobs and transform the economy towards a more sustainable future.
- Boris Johnson, UK Prime Minister, 30th June 2020
But what does Boris’ ‘clean, green recovery’ actually mean?
UK business leaders have particularly emphasised the need to focus economic support in industries which are environmentally-friendly, and making loans conditional on business plans being in line with climate goals. They have called for increased research funding for sustainable buildings, clean and domestic energy production and electric vehicles.
In the proposed policies, the Government has pledged millions to four key areas of the economy: transport, infrastructure, innovation and planning system reform. The UK was the first major economy to commit to net zero emissions by 2050 in law.
While these are commendable policies which show a real commitment to reaching a future where the country is more environmentally friendly, there are further steps required in reaching our carbon targets and ensuring the rest of the world also emphasises climate-aware policies on their agendas. The UK’s green plan arguably doesn’t deliver the best value for money, when considering long-term climate change solutions. Moreover, it is a symptom of states and institutions across the world ignoring the problem of excessive emissions in favour of creating temporary ways of capturing carbon, using an ‘accounting trick’ which avoids legally binding international carbon emission targets.
For example, the target to plant 75,000 acres of trees in Britain every year by 2025 and the pledging of £100 million for researching Direct Air Capture technology indicates a strategy of focusing on creating carbon sinks to offset increasing over-pollution and over consumption. This has been criticised as a way of avoiding the long-term underlying need to reduce energy consumption in the first place, given that the capacity for forests to absorb carbon emissions decreases over time. The work is also not finished once the trees have been planted; protecting ecosystems to ensure long-term healthy forests is a costly and necessary process which hasn’t been accounted for in the government target. At this crucial time in the economy, long-term solutions to reduce our underlying carbon production, like continuing to develop the technology for reliable renewable energy sources and green transportation alternatives, cannot be ignored in favour of short-term vanity projects to artificially lower carbon emissions.
Covid-19 and climate change are undoubtedly the biggest international issues in decades, and yet Trumpism and Brexit are symptoms of general increases in populism and falling political support for internationalism. The global community must work together to ensure climate accountability and share technology and resources, for a painless transition to a low-carbon world. It is true that before the word became so hyperconnected, a pandemic would not have spread so quickly. But, while physical isolationism is the short-term solution to covid-19, we must ensure this does not lead to long-term reduction in global interconnectedness, which can lead to great innovation and progress.
Covid-19 and climate change must be faced by an international community which is ready for forward-looking cooperation. Covid has shown us the urgency of information sharing when investigating the epidemiology and spread of the disease, and we have much to gain from applying this lesson to the problem of climate change by sharing technological developments that can help countries reach their Nationally Determined Contributions. The under-emphasised resource in this discussion is each other, and countries must fight against the recent trend of foreign policy becoming more inwards-focused, in order for us to recover from covid-19 with long-term ambitions to make the world a safer and greener place.