Until the pandemic began shutting life down across the world, decarbonisation and the drive to net zero had been front and centre of many national and international agendas. Countries and blocs were making net zero pledges, and the global diplomatic community was due to descend on Glasgow in November for COP26 to hammer out firm plans to deliver on their bold ambitions.
Now COP26 has been delayed, and budgets fiercely re-orientated towards propping up ailing businesses, protecting jobs, and staving off economic collapse. The Prime Minister Boris Johnson came to office after the 2019 election with big promises on spending: gone were the dark days of austerity, he was back to turn on the taps, build infrastructure, and level up the country. With coronavirus draining our nation’s bandwidth and finances, what does that mean for net zero?
There are two problems that the decarbonisation movement will face once this crisis abates. The first is one of priority: we will likely see a radical shift in what are major national concerns, from public health, to treatment of frontline workers, and even larger questions about our current economic and social frameworks. Will there, amidst all this noise, be the wherewithal to bring about the widespread social and structural changes that will be needed to transition to net zero?
The second problem is financial. Changes that are required to decarbonise, even by 2050, will be costly. Given the unprecedented level of Government support for businesses, SMEs, and workers, the Treasury will be in a much sorrier state than when Rishi Sunak delivered his optimistic Budget less than eight weeks ago. How we deal with this and the oncoming recession remains to be seen, but the finances for green projects and the support businesses will need to decarbonise will not necessarily be forthcoming.
There are causes for optimism however. The pandemic has shown that – by and large – we are able to withstand major adjustments to our behaviour. We have complied with instructions to remain housebound, working from home has continued where possible, and our understanding of what work is essential and how we value it has radically changed. The Government has also shown that when a crisis appears, it is willing to take radical action when necessary, and once billions have been spent to tackle one crisis, it might just be psychologically easier to find the money again when the next crisis hits. We know now that it can be done.
The tangible impact that lockdown has had on the environment has also been powerful ammunition for the green movement. Satellite imaging of air pollution levels plummeting in cities like London and Milan are striking reminders of the impact daily life has on our environment, and these cleaner streets and skies combined with a momentum built over years on climate campaigning should put pressure on policymakers to ensure that, unlike the economic collapse of 2008, an economic recovery is built around green principles.
When Covid-19 is repelled, climate change will remain. There are obstacles to how we will effectively confront the climate crisis, but failing to act will be more costly than anything we have yet seen from this pandemic. When we rebuild our economies and communities after COVID, a green recovery may be the easier for governments to support than not, and our net zero ambitions will continue to be in sight.