Editorial - Greener on the other side?
A common refrain during Covid-19 – and, for many, the one silver lining – has been that ‘nature is returning’. By pushing humans inside, the pandemic has reduced pollution and resulted in wildlife re-entering our cities, towns, and lives. Over the course of lockdown, newspapers from across the political spectrum – from the Telegraph1 to the Guardian2 – featured articles welcoming the change and expressing hope that the pandemic would catalyse the kind of environmental action that had otherwise proven so elusive.
It is no cause for celebration, however, when the restoration of nature occurs for all the wrong reasons. Glimpses are offered of what the world could look like – less pollution, clearer skies, and full-throated birdsong – but this can provide little solace if humanity is too sick, impoverished, or excluded from experiencing it. At the very core of movements like Extinction Rebellion and the campaign for a Green New Deal is the idea that social justice and environmental justice are and must be inextricably linked. By contrast, many of the environmental gains from Covid-19 and its economic fallout have come at the expense of justice.
The state of nature today is cold comfort to those who are increasingly relying on food banks; whose debts are mounting because of unpaid bills, mortgages and rent; whose living arrangements limit their access to nature; and who depend on government support which, while ostensibly providing an emergency landing, has revealed far too many holes in the parachute.
For many, then, these glimpses of a restored natural environment may feel ever more distant from the lives they’re living.
“Our failure to prepare is as clear for the climate and nature crises as it was for Covid-19”
Our experience of this pandemic therefore throws up important questions for the climate and nature crises. How do we respond to the climate crisis in ways that don’t rely on a social emergency? How do we avoid climate and environmental policy having to sit to one side and wait its turn while the economy and society are in crisis? And how can we ensure that the policies developed to address the climate and nature crises have social justice at their heart?
WE ARE NOT PREPARED
To answer these questions, we ﬁrst need to understand the parallels between Covid-19 and environmental breakdown. Our failure to prepare is as clear for the climate and nature crises as it was for Covid-19. Our physical infrastructure is not prepared – be that hospital capacity or ﬂood defences. Our social infrastructure is also diminished. Cuts to – and an ideological distrust of – local government reduces our capacity to manage localised outbreaks (as the recent spike in Covid-19 cases in Leicester has shown),3 but also limits our ability to respond to local environmental disasters.
Most fundamentally, when a light is shone on our economic model, the wax starts to melt. Covid-19 has shown with devastating eloquence how dependent our economy is on consuming, and revealed how the planet recovers when we are forced not to. If the restoration of nature is only achievable through social and economic catastrophe, then we must surely question what our economy values in the ﬁrst place.
As restrictions are eased, we are also presented with a grim case study of what a muddled response to a crisis looks like – an omen for future environmental crises. Are the restrictions being lifted too early? If we have a second wave – as many prominent academics are suggesting – how severe will it be? How much can life actually return to ‘normal’, and what has been irrevocably damaged? If everyone can return to work, but for many there’s no work to return to, can we really call it normal? And what of our trust in governments tasked with responding to the crisis? In the UK, this was newly revived and strengthened by a clear message for everyone at the start of lockdown, but so quickly eroded by the perception that the government – and its advisors – are a law unto themselves. How much trust do people still have in the government now? And if we can’t get the response to the pandemic right, are we destined to lurch ill-prepared from one crisis to the next?
A GREEN RECOVERY
We may not yet technically be in an economic recession – which is deﬁned as two-quarters of negative growth – but, when the economy has already shrunk by 20 per cent,4 unemployment could reach as high as 4 million people, and many others are on reduced hours,5 that feels like a moot point. At the very least, the government recognises the health and economic emergencies that lie ahead, even if its classiﬁcation of an emergency doesn’t yet stretch to include the environment. Even if insufﬁciently comprehensive, the provision of a furlough scheme should be evidence that funds can be found when they are really needed. Gone are the disingenuous protestations over ‘magic money trees’. In the place of this rhetoric is a growing consensus that tackling a recession will also need substantial investment, and fast.
It is in this discussion over investment where the role for a green recovery becomes clear – intuitive to explain, popular in its appeal, but complicated to execute.
There are two key arguments for a green recovery. First, as a result, in part, of fresh rounds of quantitative easing across much of the world, interest rates are so low that expanding government spending and investment has never been more attractive. Second, and crucially, if we are able to spend vast sums, we should put that investment towards meeting climate goals that were already a priority long before the pandemic, rather than locking in a’ dirty recovery’ from Covid-19 – especially given that a green recovery would offer substantial job creation and attractive co-beneﬁts?
The concept of a green recovery is already popular across the country and internationally. At the end of May, the EU announced a substantial $1.85 trillion budget – of which $750 million is earmarked as a stimulus package – with environmental criteria embedded throughout.6 In the UK, polling in June by the Conservative Environmental Network showed that a large majority of respondents would view a failure to tackle pollution and climate change in a post-Covid-19 green recovery as “bad for the economy in the long run” (67 per cent), “a sign that the government has the wrong priorities” (69 per cent); and “proof the government doesn’t listen to ordinary people like [them] (69 per cent)”.7 For their part, the government has committed to “[building] back better”,8 and a £3 billion retroﬁtting fund is a promising ﬁrst step.9 And in the build-up to the 26th UN Conference of the Parties (COP26), the UK has a real opportunity to demonstrate to the international stage that it is listening and has the capacity and enthusiasm to coordinate, revitalise and redouble the focus on global climate commitments.
“If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that the periods of ‘normal’ life between major, disruptive national and international events is shrinking”
As ever, to avoid erratically throwing money at a problem, we need an accurate hand in front of the dartboard. Devils like details, and they love technicalities, so we must come prepared with the speciﬁcs. What are the technologies that present attractive opportunities for investment? Where should we invest in them? How do we maximise opportunities, and provide transitional support, for those who stand to lose? Crucially, while people may conceptually agree with a green recovery, do they fully understand what it means for their area? Do they not only have a say in the process, but get to shape it for themselves? And at a time when long overdue discussions over systemic racism and racial justice are so present and necessary, are we embedding the right values to supersede old economic structures which entrench these inequalities?
If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that the periods of ‘normal’ life between major, disruptive national and international events is shrinking. The result is increasingly limited time and headspace to reﬂect on these questions. In this issue, we attempt to do some of that reﬂective work and start to provide the initial sketches and the calculations behind the blueprint for a green recovery.
We start with a sober analysis of our present crisis to inform how best we should respond in future. Dr Clare Wenham discusses UK health security –critiquing our domestic strategy and looking at how Covid-19 will impact our global inﬂuence. Dr Sonia Adesara discusses the NHS from a frontline perspective – exploring what must change about the NHS in a world where human disregard for the environment makes health crises much more likely.
From here, we build the case for a green recovery, beginning on the international stage. In our interview with Mary Robinson and Tessa Khan, they highlight how the climate crisis, Covid-19, economic inequality, and renewed calls for racial justice are linked, international, and demand a global response. Chris Stark then makes the case for what the UK’s contribution must be in the run up to COP26 – he calls for the government to seize the opportunity presented by the Covid-19 crisis for a resilient recovery, and lays out the priorities for action.
To give us the best chance, not just to survive but to thrive, we must be clear about the overarching goals of a green recovery. Dr Katy Roelich discusses how we must not only be clear about what we mean by ‘infrastructure’ but must also build it in a way that clearly deﬁnes and incorporates wellbeing at every stage.
Establishing priorities for wellbeing must involve people at the heart of the discussion. As Professor Rebecca Willis explores, we can and must breathe new life into a social contract between people and government that expands democracy, rather than limits it. Dhara Vyas highlights some of the key concerns that consumers have had during lockdown and how that could inform our approach to green recovery.
Without involving people and making the case convincingly, we stand to miss our window of opportunity. Using public opinion data, John Curtice explores why we should not assume that consensus on the idea of a green recovery is the same thing as consensus on real action. In our interview with Daze Aghaji, we then explore what the right messages should be to establish that consensus, particularly when reaching out to ethnic minorities and marginalised communities who, in their learned behaviours, may already be ‘incognito activists’.
We conclude with Stephen Quilley, who discusses the post-pandemic political economy and lays out potential paths and pitfalls for progressives. Indeed, when the window of opportunity is so clear but so small, can we step into a new world with courage and camaraderie, or is a glimpse for some all we will ever have?
Josh Emden, Shreya Nanda, Chris Thomas and Rachel Statham
- Shute J (2020) ‘The return of the wild: how nature is making a comeback in the wake of coro- navirus’. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/family/life/return-wild-nature-making-comeback-wake- coronavirus/
- Guardian (2020) ‘The Guardian view on nature’s return: humans making way’. https://www. theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/15/the-guardian-view-on-natures-return- humans-making-way
- Burn-Murdoch J, Neville S, Hughes L, and Bounds A (2020) ‘Lack of local Covid-19 testing data hinders UK’s outbreak response’, Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/301c847c- a317-4950-a75b-8e66933d423a
- British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC] (2020a) ‘Bank of England ‘ready to act’ as economy shrinks record 20%’. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-53019360
- British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC] (2020b) ‘Jobless ﬁgures ‘not showing full extent of cri- sis”. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-53416207
- European Commission [EC] (2020) ‘Europe’s moment: Repair and prepare for the next genera- tion’. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_940
- Conservative Environment Network [CEN] (2020) ‘Support for a green recovery (June 2020)’. https://www.cen.uk.com/polling
- Holder M (2020) ‘Boris Johnson: ’We owe it to future generations to build back better”. https://www.businessgreen.com/news/4015783/boris-johnson-owe-future-generations-build
- Thomas N and Plimmer G (2020) ‘UK government’s £3bn energy efﬁciency plan ‘not yet a green recovery”. https://www.ft.com/content/a72ec4e9-9942-4794-a519-b42e28b36289