The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken the world, as a crisis unlike anything seen in a generation, and we are not out of the woods yet. There are however some small glimmers to take from the impact of the lockdown and these exceptional circumstances.
Within the energy sector, possibly the most obvious example is the high levels of renewable power on the system throughout lockdown, while there has been no coal since 9 April, the longest period since the industrial revolution.
As George Monbiot of the Guardian points out, this epidemic has shown in graphically clear terms that the UK can do precisely what the sceptics said was impossible: fly less, drive less, travel less and consume less. The pandemic is a health crisis but climate change is no less of a crisis, albeit over a longer term. What has happened over the past three months is exactly what is needed to combat runaway global warming.
Covid-19 is also an economic crisis, and one that is worsening by the day. We need the economy to get going again, get people back to work and start to remedy the drastic drop in GDP. But we cannot go back to the old ways that were driving us towards oblivion: greenhouse gases increasing, global warming worsening, pollution killing millions of people around the world.
As the Committee on Climate Change emphasised at the beginning of May, we need low carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure to be at the heart of the government’s approach to rebuilding the UK after COVID-19.
So how do we come out of this crisis in a positive way, one that ensures we don’t just fall back into old ways that undermine action on climate change? The answer is not by funding the redundant airlines or areas of industry engaged in polluting and fossil fuelled activities. The problem is that there is a recent precedent which is deeply negative in this respect. In 2008 after the banking crisis there was a recession and emissions reduced, only to bounce back a couple of years later, a wasted opportunity. The golden opportunity from Covid-19 may be our last and cannot - and must not - be similarly wasted.
The Stern Report of 2006 demonstrated that at a modest cost of 1 – 2% of GDP, the UK could make the changes necessary to combat climate change and the costs of doing nothing would greatly exceed this price tag. Stern looked at climate change as an opportunity for widescale restructuring of the economy and the opening up of a myriad of new opportunities to replace the old ways with new, based on technology and a research and development basis. He also emphasised the way that climate change is interwoven with other social issues such as poverty.
Stern followed up his pivotal report in 2015 with the book Why Are We Waiting?, which was published around the time of the COP 21 meeting in Paris. In that book he looked at how climate change work could overcome some of the inherent difficulties in getting the public to accept fundamental change in how society operates. These same factors will be relevant in putting pressure on the Government to make sure that it does not accede to financial bailouts without strings to the wrong sectors post Covid-19.
One of the factors he mentions is better communication of the issues. Recent MORI polls have shown record levels of concern about climate change amongst the public and very strong support for action. This should be used as a platform to drive home the message that further change is necessary – and we have all proved recently, for example, that we don’t need to drive quite as much as before.
The communications should make better use of psychology and ensure that everyone realises the harm from it, such as that pollution in the UK kills 40,000 people a year.
There are useful examples given of how changes that may have seemed unthinkable have been actually delivered. The smoking ban in the UK is probably the most impressive and operated via a top down regulation from Government.
We can therefore deduce which levers might be best used to ensure that the Government is kept ‘on message’ about the emergence from Covid-19. The first is regulation. This is a powerful tool and carbon pricing is a good example of how this might be brought to bear. If you want to still fly, you have to pay for it. Not £25 cheap flights to Europe but full cost, plus a carbon tax.
Leadership will be essential and can demonstrate that jobs lost in fossil fuel industries can be replaced with more sustainable jobs in the new green economy. In Current± of 28 April I talked about a massive home retrofit programme that would be an example of where new jobs could be created.
Finance is the obvious lever receiving a lot of focus at present. Bailouts for large businesses cannot be without proper strings attached. The vested interests have realised this and are already railing against this. It will be a travesty if public money is given to entities that are making the emissions progress worse and hindering the climate change position in the longer term.
Finally, there is consumer behaviour. It doesn’t matter whether Ryanair insists that it will run its flights from next month. If no one turns up to fly, that position will not last for long. Similarly, those who have recognised the absence of pollution created from car fumes or industry and do not want to go back to those times can make their voices heard. Consumer behaviour in terms of purchasing can be a very powerful weapon indeed.
This final area is where the young people in our society come to the fore. Stern says “Today’s young people can and should hold their parents’ generation to account for their present actions. They can elicit an emotional response that can motivate action.” Pressure from the bottom has worked before and can work again here.
So what are the chances of these tools being used effectively to ensure that the vested interests of polluters do not hold sway with a Government desperate to see an exit from this pandemic with as little damage as possible to health and the economy? Well that remains to be seen, but as I said before, this is an opportunity and one that simply must not be wasted.