The ongoing economic recession due to COVID-19 has stimulated unprecedented state intervention and hence provided golden opportunities for governments to entrench environmental protection and restoration in our economic systems. A comprehensive green recovery strategy is about resuscitating and transforming the ailing economy through investment in green technology, rather than simply restarting it. The pattern of growth relies on present and future investment in the environment as the major driver of economic development, and a need to move beyond the reverence of GDP in its traditional carbon-intensive measure, which is often valued at the expense of the environment.
Given the global shutdown, which has been achieved at a great economic cost, analysis by the International Renewable Energy Agency expects this year’s annual carbon emissions to be down by just 6-8%. However, such a drop has a considerably insignificant effect on the earth’s average surface temperature when compared to the internationally agreed target of at least a 7.6% fall every year until 2050. Such statistics would lead us to believe that our main goal, of keeping global warming below 1.5°C pre-industrial levels, is extremely out of reach. Nevertheless, communities across the globe in recent months have shifted dramatically from their normally unsustainable ways of living, and instead became more dependent on nature to improve both physical and mental health is testament to the potential that humanity has at meaningfully decreasing its collective carbon footprint and genuinely slowing down the process of global warming. This is worth holding on to while we simultaneously deal with the twin storms of the environmental crisis and Covid-19.
Leading academics took part in an Oxford University publication that analysed economic stimulus packages and discussed which needs must be met when transitioning from our current struggling economic system that relies on fossil fuels to one shaped around environmental, social and fiscal justice. The report contains five main points for policy makers: clean physical infrastructure investment; building efficiency retrofits; investment in education and training to address both immediate unemployment due to the pandemic as well as structural unemployment from decarbonisation; natural capital investment for environmental restoration and clean R&D. These points provide areas where fiscal support – private and public – should be focused for both creating jobs and restarting the economy while still ensuring that we reduce the most damaging impacts of climate change, boost biodiversity and maintain the natural environment that we are very dependent upon.
While the lockdown has led to extraordinary positive changes in the direction of a greener world, the problem lies in its very temporary nature. So, although India has recorded its first year-on-year fall in carbon emissions in four decades, it is important to keep in mind that when we start driving again, for example, the cars we use will still burn petrol. Factories will reopen en mass and fossil fuels will again be burnt to power them. The airplane industry, should it recover, will again consume 7.5 million barrels of oil daily. To counteract this, real and fundamental changes in the ways that societies and cities are currently functioning must be actioned. In Milan, the Strade Aperte plan, meaning “Open Roads” is one of the major examples of how city planners aim to redesign streets by allocating 35km street space for cyclists and pedestrians. The approach was also adopted by other countries such as France and Brussels. In the UK, the government has encouraged walking and cycling through a £2bn infrastructure scheme, with London tackling congestion concurrently through plans to create car-free bridges and streets.
Seizing the opportunity for environmental change stretches beyond the transport sector. Many countries in Europe have placed the “European Green Deal” at the heart of coronavirus recovery efforts with a focus on green programmes to create jobs. The recovery fund of the European Commission amounts to about USD $848 billion so far, with 25%of the budget reserved for climate action, as announced by the European Union. Other highly developed countries have similar strategies: China is introducing a six-year plan during 2020-25 for a low-carbon stimulus package amounting to USD 1.4 trillion and South Korea is investing USD 10.8 billion by 2022 to boost the green energy sector and create thousands of jobs. Having said that, the future does not seem as bright for developing countries such as Bangladesh where its stimulus package to deal with the impacts of the pandemic is only about 4% of its gross domestic product: an insignificant stimulus for green recovery.
In addition, city initiatives can only go so far, and hence at these challenging times, governments must build new relationships with the private sector. Governments on their own are incapable of forming equitable production systems. They have never been in a stronger position to negotiate suitable agendas with entrepreneurs, businesses, and entire industries as they plead for state aid. These should aim to provide them with enough cash flow to survive but also help transform them into sustainable, functioning parts of society, instead of focusing entirely on profits. Although this time, being mindful of the mistakes made in the aftermath of the 2008/2009 financial crisis, governments need to put harsher conditions onto bailout contracts to prevent merely fixing the same flawed system as opposed to co-creating a new one.
Cutting out state subsidies to fossil-fuel companies is an obvious easy start, especially with the recent plunge in oil prices which makes it an uncertain commodity to invest in.
Supporting local renewable infrastructure instead, which would lead to the creation of much needed public sector jobs and growth in the industry, could be the huge transformative change needed to kickstart the process. However, the reality is a lot more disappointing. The UK has bailed out oil giants, enabling and allowing them to resume their carbon-intensive activities in a desperate and quick attempt to get back pre-virus levels of output. Strong forces to the global economy such as the US and China have also bailed out polluting companies without using that as a leverage to impose environmentally minded reforms. These contradictory policies being laid out in parallel with green strategies raises concerns about whether countries are willing to make firm, serious and transparent commitments to follow a more sustainable future.
Looking back at the way countries are tackling our energy and economic decisions and whether their plans would result in significant changes, while still harnessing our tried and trusted fossil fuels, it remains unclear if we’re on the right green path. However, the pandemic has delivered unexpected environmental benefits such as cleaner air, quiet lives, and in a sense respite for the world, making many of us aware of the cleaner, more sustainable alternative ways of living and our great capabilities of co-existing with nature. So, although in some ways we may be eager to resume from where we left off, many across the world are more eager than ever to keep some of the lifestyle changes the lockdown has enforced to fight this climate emergency. With a newfound passion for change shared by many around the world, that enthusiasm may very well catalyse the necessary global collaboration and unity that could steer the post-pandemic global economy in a direction that protects people and the planet from our ecological destruction that produces new diseases and the climate crisis that threatens us all.