The greatest opportunity ever wasted

Photo by Anne Nygard

Everyone agrees that the misery of COVID-19 presents an opportunity. Never has it been more necessary to reset our broken world, and never has there been more willingness amongst the public. Policies that only recently were inconceivable, from mothballing airports to shutting us in our homes, have become reality. Consumers and companies across the country are willingly undergoing a paradigm shift in how they work and travel. And with only 6% of us wanting a return to our pre-pandemic lives, the Government has a mandate for change like never before.

So what have they done with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? What eye-watering figure has been announced to sow the seeds of a green recovery? A total of £3bn – for a Green Jobs Challenge to boost environmental charities, and for a Green Homes Grant to help insulate homes. Ignoring the fact that their finance for home insulation only reverses the decline overseen by the Tories in the first place, the total lack of ambition is clear when compared to other European green recovery packages: £13.5bn in France, almost £36bn in Germany, and a total EU goal of $1tn. Then consider that same paltry £3bn in the context of the billions committed to funding airlines, car manufacturers and fossil fuels – without any environmental conditions attached.

Meanwhile, despite the raft of urgent suggestions from the Government’s own climate advisory group, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), there was nothing new for renewable energy, nothing for electric vehicles (despite transport being the UK’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions) and nothing for improving broadband. And that’s despite the CCC calling for the £28bn currently set aside for road building to be redirected towards helping us all work from home.

Even the Prime Minister’s pledge of £12bn towards new social housing is environmentally problematic: unless the low-carbon home standard is brought forward from 2025, many of the new homes proposed will only have to be refurbished later – just like the approximately one million homes built since 2008 and identified by the CCC as being inadequate to meet our climate obligations.

Again and again, global recovery is presented as a choice between a purely financial response that safeguards jobs and the economy, and an environmental response that safeguards the natural world. And again and again those in power seem intent on prioritising the former.

The Bank’s lending to companies as part of the emergency response to Covid-19 has not incorporated a test based on climate considerations… We have focused on the immediate priority of supporting jobs and livelihoods.

Andrew Bailey, Governor of the Bank of England, 1st July

But the fact is that this pandemic is an environmental crisis, a consequence of our interaction with the natural world.

Pandemics such as the COVID-19 outbreak are a predictable and predicted outcome of how people source and grow food, trade and consume animals, and alter environments.

UN Report ‘Preventing the Next Pandemic’

To push a financial recovery without making the environment central to every aspect is to treat the symptoms and not the cause, continuing to plunder the planet while heightening the risk of similar pandemics in the future. Truly green New Deals exist, and have been proposed by everyone from the WWF to the International Energy Agency, each one quantifying the enormous economic advantages on offer. Yet here we are with what, in the context of what’s needed, amounts to little more than a gesture.

Next year, the UK hosts the delayed COP26 summit. The responsibility to show leadership by urgent example is immense. Meanwhile Boris Johnson, who took personal control of climate change policy last October, has chaired precisely one meeting of the cabinet’s climate committee.

Without central and integrated leadership, we will fail in our task, and this really does need the prime minister’s attention to make a success of it. It is a poor excuse that [the cabinet committee] has not met more often.

Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the Committee on Climate Change

With all that ‘failing in our task’ really means, it just shouldn’t be an option. The chasm between the actions of our Prime Minister and those of the historic figures he loves to evoke couldn’t be greater, or risk more catastrophic consequences. It’s like Churchill trying to see off Hitler with a strongly-worded letter.

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