Coronavirus has pushed climate change down the agenda at the worst possible time
This was not the crisis we had been expecting.
A year on from Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to declare a climate emergency at the SNP conference and the evidence that the world’s climate is at a tipping point has become even harder to ignore.
Yet, with evidence suggesting the world is well on its way to catastrophic temperature rises, caused by greenhouse gas emissions, humanity has not responded.
Repeated warnings have been ignored while actions have fallen short. None of this is new, but the reality is increasingly visible. Global temperature records have been broken on a near-annual basis. Wildfires across first the Amazon, then the Australian bush. Island communities – from Scotland to the south Pacific – are facing the prospect of the land they need to live on disappearing beneath the sea. Warnings, once contained in scientific papers, are now blared out on TV news on a daily basis.
Children reacted far faster than most adults, walking out of schools around the world to call, loudly, desperately, on politicians to show some responsibility.
Groups such as Extinction Rebellion emerged – bigger than the campaigns that came before – to take over parliaments, corporate headquarters and city centres to demand politicians go further and faster.
Yet even with the dystopian images of the arctic burning, it is hard to escape the fact that, in 2020, climate was the wrong emergency.
From its emergence around the new year, coronavirus has changed everything - from the fundamental patterns of our lives to the conversations dominating the corridors of power.
In that context, the decision to delay publication of the Scottish Government climate change plan - it had been due in April - was almost symbolic of the way one deadly crisis pushed another down the priority list.
Which is not to say ministers had much choice. As Roseanna Cunningham explained: “We have come to the view that publishing the climate change plan update by the end of April is no longer feasible or appropriate. This does not mean that work on our ambitious plan will pause – indeed it will continue – but it is recognition that we are operating in a changed landscape.
“It is vitally important that our actions in the coming weeks and months, even those in response to other major global issues such as climate change, reflect the worldwide situation and support our national response.”
And so the plan is now being reworked, much like everything else. It was around the time the plan should have been released that more bad news emerged, this time with the announcement that the UN climate conference, due to have been held in Glasgow in November, would be delayed by a year. It just wasn’t safe.
The talks had actually been a growing source of tension between the Scottish and UK governments, particularly after Number Ten started looking at moving them from Glasgow to London, leading the FM to accuse Boris Johnson of “playing politics with the biggest issue of our time” .
In the end the dispute was more or less pointless, with the venue, the SEC, turned into a temporary hospital in preparation for a possible spike in COVID cases, and a new date set for November 2021. The UN Climate Change Executive Secretary, Patricia Espinosa, said: “If done right, the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis can steer us to a more inclusive and sustainable climate path.”
And so climate campaigners have found themselves in a new position, expected to tie climate solutions to the massive amount of work expected to help communities across the UK and beyond to recover from the damage done by coronavirus, and subsequent lockdowns.
Actually, the lockdown did appear to being some benefits for the environment - at least temporarily - with daily global emissions of carbon dioxide down by 17 per cent by early April compared with 2019 levels, and down by 31 per cent in the UK, according to a study in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Walking and cycling rates jumped too, with the lockdown apparently pushing people towards active travel. Government responded as well, with Michael Matheson announcing £10m in funding for pop-up walking and cycling routes or temporary improvements to existing ones.
But enforced inactivity brought problems too, with RSPB Scotland warning that the absence of witnesses in wild areas made wildlife crime easier to commit, while pointing to “clear evidence” of persecution continuing to take place.
Speaking to Holyrood, Ian Thomson, head of investigations at RSPB Scotland, said: “Very clearly, the criminals intent on causing harm to our birds of prey are continuing to do so, despite lockdown.”
And while there were some benefits to restrictions - not least in improvements in air quality - when they eased up the streets filled up with cars again, amid fears that public transport use would be lower than ever due to concerns over its potential to spread the virus.
Meanwhile, hopes the pandemic could lead to a fall in emissions too were short-lived, with forecasts suggesting greenhouse gases will surge higher than ever after lockdown.
For his part, chancellor Rishi Sunak pledged £3bn of new investment in green projects as part of a pledge to “kickstart eco-friendly economic recovery” and create jobs in low carbon industries, while promising the money was on top of the £5bn ‘New Deal’ for research into green tech, carbon capture and conservation projects, announced by the PM at the end of June.
In Scotland, ministers also hoped to tie recovery stimulus to building a more sustainable society. In fact the Scottish Government response to the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery made a point of framing its actions around just transition, arguing that there is “no choice but to focus on decarbonising and greening our economy”.
It said: “The global climate crisis poses an imminent threat to our quality of life and wellbeing… Our recovery will be an environmentally sustainable and green recovery. Everything we’re doing, whether it be on skills, business support, investment, is focused on sustainability and ensuring a just transition to net zero by 2045.”
Yet while the rhetoric was welcomed by campaigners, both unions and environmental groups questioned whether the plans went far enough, with STUC deputy general secretary Dave Moxham warning: “The truth is we need a massive fiscal stimulus and immediate measures to create jobs and redistribute wealth. This response fails to deliver on that.”
Meanwhile Friends of the Earth Scotland went further, labelling the plan “woefully inadequate”.
Head of campaigns Mary Church said: “The so-called ‘green thread’ running through the response is little more than rhetoric with very little in the way of concrete new commitments that would truly centre a just transition to a zero carbon economy.
“It’s disappointing that the government has not taken this opportunity to adopt the recent recommendations of the Just Transition Commission including a large scale fossil fuel decommissioning programme, public investment in renewable manufacturing facilities, buying fleets of green buses for local authorities and doubling energy efficiency budgets.”
Ministers will point those demanding more concrete action to the upcoming Infrastructure Investment Plan, as well as the updated Climate Change Plan, which will bring further policy details on greening the economy.
Yet if coronavirus has shown anything, it’s that governments are capable of acting far more quickly, and far more radically than evidence in the past would suggest.
The pandemic has been catastrophic, but it has also shifted our ideas of what is possible. Those demanding swifter action to avert a different sort of catastrophe will not forget.