The pandemic kept most of us locked up indoors for several months, yet also provided a glimpse of freedom. The airline industry was brought to an almost total standstill. The precipitous contraction of the global economy saw carbon emissions plummet: by the end of this year, they are likely to be 8% less than in 2019 – which is the largest annual percentage drop since World War Two. Levels of air pollution also fell to historic lows.
Something else happened that would have been unimaginable at the beginning of the year. The covid-19 crisis showed that governments can intervene decisively if the scale of an emergency is clear – and public support is present.
Not the UK government, perhaps. Our political leaders seem to be hellbent on ignoring the obvious lesson of the pandemic insofar as it revealed a basic flaw in global capitalism. Existential threats to the international system, such as coronavirus or climate change, require respect for science and multilateral cooperation, not soundbites.
There is a dismal urgency in Downing Street not to heed the wake-up call or to change anything about the way we live. The prime minister’s desperation just to get back to how things were before is almost palpable. His tardiness in imposing a lockdown is matched only by his reckless haste in easing the restrictions so that pubs and restaurants can reopen and everybody fly off to the Costa del Sol. This pandemic ‘will be over by Christmas’, according to Boris Johnson. Where have we heard that one before?
With mass unemployment looming, Rishi Sunak has apparently conjured billions of pounds out of thin air to avert a recession, although the Institute of Fiscal Studies warns his attempt to disguise old money as new may be ‘corrosive to public trust’, adding that a ‘Rooseveltian’ new deal of £5.5 billion of capital spending ‘represents an increase of precisely zero this year on budget plans’.
Johnson promises to ‘build, build, build’, but there’s no point throwing money at macho infrastructure projects if you’re just reinventing an outdated economic model. The International Monetary Fund anticipates a business recovery by the end of this year, provided there are no further large outbreaks of disease. If that happens, emissions will soon tick upwards again, as they have after each recession since the oil shock of the early 1970s.
The AGS believes it would be criminal to return to business as usual when we have the potential to build a decarbonised economy. A green recovery would benefit not only the climate but also humanity at large.
So we should take full advantage of this moment of reflection that coronavirus has afforded us. Public support for climate action was increasing before the pandemic. A new report by Climate Assembly UK suggests that nine out of ten people would now be prepared to continue with many of the lifestyle changes enforced by the lockdown if it helps to combat global warming.
Any green recovery must start with the construction industry. We need better, not just more buildings and that means mass refurbishments to improve insulation, replace windows, reduce air leakage, revamp heating (and cooling) systems, and switch fuels from coal, gas and oil towards renewable energies such as wind and solar. Making better use of wind and solar energy, water storage and green spaces will not only cut emissions but also create new jobs.
The pandemic also showed us that we need to improve our diet because obesity was an aggravating factor in covid-19 mortalities. Healthy food not only improves fitness, it also boosts immune systems – which is why the government should extend the sugar tax and increase subsidies for producers of organic fruit and veg.
At the same time we must not let our transport system revert to the previous norm of traffic jams and air pollution. The AGS wants to phase out the combustion engine (in new cars) by 2025. We also want cheaper trains, more expensive flights, tariffs on climate-unfriendly imports and a higher price on carbon emissions. If an economic recovery is to be green, it will be essential to maintain flexible working patterns with less commuting and more bike lanes.
Some campaigners wonder if the covid-19 crisis will mark a turning point in progress on climate change. The trouble with turning points in history is you never know how they will play out. Karl Marx believed that 1848 was the first wave of a proletarian revolution, only to be confounded by the ensuing decades of resurgent capitalism. We must not let that happen again – or squander the opportunity to create an alternative financial system that stops fetishising growth and delivers ecological justice.