The grass must be greener on the other side

4 min read

The Coronavirus pandemic has shown that governments can, and will, respond quickly to an emerging crisis and prioritise the health of their citizens. But as country and business leaders begin looking to the future, will they keep the biggest threat to humanity at the centre of their recovery plans?

In a world before Covid-19, less than six months ago for many, another global crisis was front and centre of most agendas - the fight against global warming.

Finally, after decades of mixed engagement – with some companies leading the way and others burying their heads in the sand - it felt that 2020 was the year that the whole world would respond to the looming threat of carbon emissions and take action to turn the tide. 

Then came the more pressing challenge of a viral pandemic that halted corporate commitments and individual efforts in their tracks.

However, all progress has not been not lost. Out of the crisis came an unexpected socio-economic disruption that saw carbon emissions fall. Overnight we stopped travelling, offices, shops and leisure facilities closed, and we walked rather than drove our cars because we all had more time on our hands.

As a result urban waterways cleared, nature flourished and the air was cleaner. The International Energy Agency (IEA) announced that global carbon emissions in April dropped 17% against the previous year, largely because of a 50% drop in road transport and a 95% reduction in flights. 

It is currently predicted that over the course of the year, global carbon emissions will drop by 8%  - a sterling achievement by usual standards, but we have been living in unusual circumstances – entire cities have been shut. The reduction in carbon emissions is an unintentional consequence of societal lockdown and we are a far cry from any sort of celebration, not least because of the impact that Covid-19 has had on lives and livelihoods. 

The importance of a green recovery 

Coronavirus may have resulted in a temporary reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but it is not a substitute for sustained climate action. We need a sustainable systemic change in how we live and operate. If not, as the lockdown ends and journeys and industrial activity resume, so too will emissions of damaging greenhouse gases.

The world needs recovery plans that deliver both economic recovery from the pandemic and build on our decarbonisation commitments with learning from the past few months. 

A welcome call has come from the International Monetary Fund which is advising that fiscal stimulus packages are based on green measures, and that fossil fuel subsidies are scrapped and countries introduce carbon taxes.  

The IEA is due to publish a report detailing policies that governments should implement to monitor recovery while, at the same time, decarbonising their economies.  And a new alliance of ministers, chief executives and researchers are urging the European Union to build its recovery package around the Green Deal strategy of sustainable growth.  

What does it look like in practice? 

With calls for a green recovery gaining momentum and a global zero carbon recovery campaign launched by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), some countries are already leading the way. 

Germany has set the bar with the Government announcing plans for a €130bn stimulus package that includes a minimum of €40bn climate-related spending, while the UK and Chile have co-launched ‘Race to Zero’ - a global campaign to drive businesses and nations to unite behind a green global recovery.

Other countries are considering applying conditions to bailouts for fossil-fuel hungry industries and are pledging to invest in infrastructure that reduces greenhouse gases, such as technology that supports home working and walking and cycling routes in city centres. 

I am super-optimistic that the momentum to tackle carbon emissions will quickly resume in the coming months, but, more than that, I am hopeful that we have all learnt some critical lessons from the deadly pandemic that we can apply to the problem of rising temperatures. 

Managing one crisis must not come at the cost of another. While countries are united by a common challenge, and individuals are engaged and motivated in building a better future for all, now is the time to be bold. Now is the time to rebuild a future with local plans that reap global benefits.