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by Chris Stark, Climate Change Committee
24 February 2021
Talking point: Will COVID save the climate?

Wind turbines in Orkney - Image credit: Colin Keldie, courtesy of Solo Energy

Talking point: Will COVID save the climate?

The pandemic has been a brutal tutorial in dramatic societal change.

Ministers have taken sweeping new powers and made unprecedented economic interventions.

More intriguingly, people have demonstrated a surprising tolerance for tough restrictions and curbs on lifestyles.

As the grim drama unfolds, some have started to draw parallels between the COVID and climate crisis.

Perhaps – the theory goes – there are similar prescriptions?

That’s a dangerous path to follow. A pandemic is an acute threat, climate change is, quite literally, a slower burn.

They demand different solutions.

Let’s take stock. Social distancing has forced a temporary shift to a smaller world with no international travel.

More walking and cycling. Local high streets have taken on new importance. In our cities and towns, green spaces matter more than ever.

That should be good for transport emissions – currently making up more than a third of Scottish emissions.

I’ve been more cautious about the impacts of the move to online working, but now I expect enduring change.

Remote working, teaching and video conferencing have been ‘normalised’ – we won’t be so embarrassed to suggest Zoom meetings in the future.

That opens the prospect of climate friendly changes to our work and travel habits.

But look more widely and this is hardly a green charter: delivery vans have replaced shopping trips, with devastating implications for town centres.

We’ve burned more gas to heat our homes through lockdown.

We’ve been forced into our cars by the threat of contagion.

Soon there will be a new challenge of reassuring travellers it’s safe to return to public transport.

And beware the rebound. How many of us are dreaming of the next big foreign trip as soon as restrictions allow?

Freed from the need to commute, we’ve already filled more of our free time with leisure trips in cars.

Oddly enough, people are eager to travel after a year of lockdown.

In truth, the challenges of decarbonisation remain largely the same as those pre-pandemic.

The task of moving to carbon neutrality still requires sustained investment – we estimate £5-6bn of extra investment per year in Scotland – and a set of changes to lifestyles, which we still have time to achieve without punitive steps.

COVID doesn’t offer a climate ‘windfall’. In fact, it complicates the story: generous public spending won’t last forever.

So we need a new plan. The creativity to capitalise on any positive changes we’ve seen during the pandemic.

Sadly, that wasn’t easy to spot in the recent Scottish Climate Change Plan.

Progress towards net zero rests ultimately on encouraging businesses and households to invest, which hasn’t typically been the expressed goal of ministers.

Green investments – the windfarms, the home insulation, the electric vehicles, the energy networks – drive emissions down.

They are also substantial new sources of employment if we can develop homegrown industries to deliver them.

We estimate a two to three per cent boost to GDP over the next decade if we make the investments necessary to deliver net zero.

The idea of seeing economic advantage from decarbonisation has rather gone out of fashion, but COVID recovery and net zero both require an economic realignment.

Can they be tied together meaningfully?

Scottish ministers are often keen to spread their bets – notably less willing to name their priorities.

A clearer view of Scotland’s economic priorities might be the biggest climate impact of this pandemic. We can but hope.

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