Covid and Carbon: Why Building Back Better Isn’t a Done Deal

Covid and Carbon: Why Building Back Better Isn’t a Done Deal

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While Covid-19 could offer an opportunity to crawl back some of the damage done to the planet, governments are turning their back on this opportunity in a chaotic bid to prioritise economic recovery.
illustration of the environment healthy pre covid

In the new forward to her book, The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, award-winning author, Naomi Klein states, “if nothing else, the past few months have put pay to the idea that late capitalist societies are incapable of seismic transformations on a deadline.” Indeed, we have seen the most aggressive government interventions in the economy since World War Two, with governments around the world covering, or subsiding, the salaries of millions of people. 

“Clearly”, she says, “when societies decide to treat an emergency as an emergency, all manner of possibilities bloom.”

She therefore questions why governments have never reacted to the environmental crisis with as much urgency as they have for the pandemic – despite 1,799 jurisdictions in 31 countries declaring a “climate emergency”. Why have governments not already started to retool people with the skills they need to shift from high-carbon sectors to zero-carbon ones? Money that once could have been directed to green jobs, such as planting trees, remediating polluted land, and building energy-efficient affordable homes, is now being channelled in the form of bailouts, into high-carbon sectors such as the UK’s aviation and automotive industries* and indirectly to gas and oil industries in the US. 

Elsewhere around the world, countries such as China and Australia are slashing regulations around climate change in the name of “getting back to growth”. On top of bailout billions, the industries at the heart of the climate crisis are winning a slew of regulatory and tax victories with the US and China stripping back many rules restricting air and water pollution. Australia’s government has promised to cut the “green tape” and is ushering in a “gas-led recovery”, meanwhile in India, an iconic elephant sanctuary is being opened up to coal mining. All the while, the wealth of US billionaires has risen by nearly a third during the pandemic (unlike in the 2008 recession when billionaires were also adversely affected.)  

Despite this, many countries are insisting on a “build back better” narrative. In 2019, the UK made history by becoming the first country to legislate for a net-zero target by 2050. France, Denmark, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan and China have followed suit, with Sweden and Scotland aiming for 2045. The Bank of England and the European Central Bank have declared that environmental risk will now be factored into their bond-buying programmes and Boris Johnson has announced that the UK will become the “Saudi Arabia of Wind” – all indicating that a global cultural shift is underway. Yet, on November 4th 2020, the US officially withdrew from the Paris Agreement, and the UK’s current trajectory is not on track to meet its targets**. Indeed, the UK government has recently permitted the opening of a new coal mine in Cumbria, which has been cynically permitted to open on the proviso that it closes by 2049 – a year ahead of the 2050 deadline for net carbon neutrality. 

Therefore, organisations such as Extinction Rebellion are keeping the pressure on. Back in August, a Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) Bill was tabled in the House of Commons by Green MP Caroline Lucas – a bill that was instrumented by XR, but prepared by the broader CEE Bill Alliance, consisting of a team of scientists, academics, lawyers and campaigners all working together, and guided by current science. 

 

The CEE Bill calls for five major changes: 

  • The government to make a serious climate action plan. 
  • For further carbon calculations to take into account our overseas carbon footprint. 
  • The protection and conservation of nature both in the UK and its overseas supply lines. 
  • A move away from the ‘technology will save us’ rhetoric which is too often used as an excuse to carry on polluting as normal. 
  • Establishment of a Citizen’s Assembly with real power on the climate and ecological crisis.

 

Since its first reading in September, the CEE Bill has been supported by 77 cross-party MPs, it needs 200+ to stand a chance of becoming law through parliament. 

Unlike the pandemic, we can’t fast-track a vaccine for the environment, and time is running short, so any way to keep up the momentum and help the UK honour its carbon neutrality aims, is key – something that is increasingly difficult to do while protests and gatherings are unlikely to go ahead safely in the near future. One thing is for certain though, according to Klein: “There is no returning to where we were before this crisis hit, we are going somewhere new. It could be a lot worse, clearly. But it could also be significantly better. The outcome will depend on what we choose to carry with us – and what we are willing to leave behind.” 

 

*To see why this is problematic, we can look at the record of the COVID-19 Corporate Financing Facility loans – emergency loans provided to corporations by the Bank of England. Rolls-Royce took out £300m and announced 3,000 job losses; Airbus took out £500m and announced 1,700 UK job losses; Ryanair took out £600m before forcing workers to agree pay cuts on threat of 3,000 job losses; easyJet took out £600m and announced 1,900 job losses; and British Airways borrowed £300m which ultimately funded a 10% redundancy scheme.

**The Climate Change Act 2008 requires the government to set five-yearly carbon budgets, after taking advice from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). These run until 2032. The budgets are fixed in advance and set five-year caps on the total greenhouse gas emissions allowed to ensure the UK meets its emissions reductions commitments. As of April 2020, The UK is on track to meet its third carbon budget (the current one, covering 2018–22) but is not on track to meet its fourth (2023–27) and fifth (2028–32).



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