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How the 'green recovery' went mainstream

How the 'green recovery' went mainstream

"Greenhouse gas concentrations, which are already at their highest levels in three million years, have continued to rise," said World Meteorological Organization secretary-general Professor Petteri Taalas. 

"Meanwhile, large swathes of Siberia have seen a prolonged and remarkable heatwave during the first half of 2020, which would have been very unlikely without anthropogenic climate change. And now 2016 to 2020 is set to be the warmest five-year period on record. This report shows that whilst many aspects of our lives have been disrupted in 2020, climate change has continued unabated," he said.

Taalas was speaking at the launch of the United in Science report, produced by a range of expert organisations including the UN, and the news was not positive.

In fact, in a year defined by a seemingly unremitting stream of bad news, this report represented yet more. COVID-19 disrupted almost every aspect of human society, but not climate change. 

It was a blow to one of the few apparent upshots from lockdown. Across the developed world – home to the highest emitting economies – streets had cleared. With industries slowed or shut down entirely, it felt natural to point to potential improvements in the environment as one of the few sources of hope in a story of misery.

But that was short lived. Maybe it had just been desperation. Instead, the report showed that although greenhouse gas emissions did fall in some areas, concentrations in the atmosphere had continued to rise. The years 2016 to 2020 will likely be the warmest five years on record and, most worryingly, irreversible climate change impacts are increasing.

Overall, global greenhouse gas emission levels fell by 17 per cent in April against the previous year, but it was a temporary blip.

Never before has it been so clear that we need long term, inclusive, clean transitions to tackle the climate crisis and achieve sustainable development

People began to re-emerge from their homes. Work places started to re-open. Some normality returned. And as it did, carbon dioxide emissions started rising again. By June they were back within five per cent of the previous year and, according to the report, over the course of 2020 the total drop will be between four and seven per cent. It wasn’t much to hold onto.

To keep rising temperatures under 1.5 degrees, the report warned, the top six highest emitting countries in the world would essentially require a pandemic-sized carbon slowdown every year from now until the end of the decade. Beyond that, the report really just provided further evidence for the problems the world knows about but refuses to properly act on. 

Global sea levels are rising much faster than previously recorded, sea ice in the Arctic continues to shrink – it is disappearing by around 13 per cent per decade – and the risk of wildfire globally continues to increase.

In the foreword of the report, António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, wrote: “This has been an unprecedented year for people and planet. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives worldwide. At the same time, the heating of our planet and climate disruption has continued apace. Record heat, ice loss, wildfires, floods and droughts continue to worsen, affecting communities, nations and economies around the world. Furthermore, due to the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the past century, the planet is already locked into future significant heating.

“The solution to slowing down the rate of global temperature rise and keeping it below 1.5C is for nations to dramatically cut emissions, with the aim of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. While emissions fell during the peak of the pandemic confinement measures, they have already mostly recovered to within five per cent of the same period in 2019 and are likely to increase further. This report stresses that short-term lockdowns are no substitute for the sustained climate action that is needed to enable us to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

“Never before has it been so clear that we need long term, inclusive, clean transitions to tackle the climate crisis and achieve sustainable development. We must turn the recovery from the pandemic into a real opportunity to build a better future.”

“In order to do that, governments need consistent and solid science, backed by the strong collaboration of scientific institutions and academia, to underpin policy decisions that can tackle the greatest challenges of our time.”

So, in short, the pandemic hasn’t helped mitigate climate change, but recovery measures could.

In Scotland, the idea of tying the action needed to help recover from COVID to the ongoing need to prioritise climate is not new. The First Minister and the Environment Secretary have been talking in those terms since the start of the start of lockdown, just as it was becoming clear just how much disruption coronavirus would cause. 

Most notable was the decision to delay COP26 – the UN climate talks which had been due to take place in Glasgow in November – but plans were ruined across the board. In fact, there was something almost symbolic about the way COVID forced ministers into postponing publication of the climate change plan – it had been expected in April – with Roseanna Cunningham warning that the idea of publishing it six months after the most recent round of climate legislation was passed was “no longer feasible nor appropriate given the challenges we are currently facing”.

The plan contained the practical measures expected to help Scotland achieve its emission reduction targets, but it was delayed by coronavirus. Explaining the move, Cunningham said the Scottish Government needed “a bit of time to ensure the policies and proposals that we do put forward will reflect the new economic and social realities post pandemic”.

That was just a month after the UK went into lockdown, and already the idea we would be operating in a ‘new economic and social reality’ was unavoidable. Few complained. 

A few months after that, Cunningham joined the list of senior MSPs to announce they would not be standing in the next election – a list that included several members of the current cabinet. The plan will be published eventually – it’s currently expected at the end of the year – but the cabinet secretary will no longer be in parliament for much of its implementation.

The need for a ‘green recovery’, meanwhile, was a key aim handed to the Scottish Government economic recovery advisory group at its formation – even if the committment was undermined by subsequent comments from its chair, Benny Higgins, in blasting the demands of “ideological zealots” in the environmental movement.

As he put it, according to The Times: “You have got the ideological zealots who would throw economic growth and jobs under a bus to achieve a much narrower set of objectives around their own focus. I’m referring to people like Friends of the Earth and certain parts of the green movement.

“I think the recovery for Scotland has to be green, it has to be fair and it needs to be inclusive, but it needs to have economic growth. A wellbeing economy needs growth to pay for itself.”

As it happened, the ‘ideological zealots’ at Friends of the Earth Scotland were broadly positive about the programme for government, which reflected a number of Higgins’ recommendations, with director Dr Richard Dixon describing the statement as “welcome progress”.

Dixon said: “The Scottish Government has shown that they know that the future must be greener, safer and fairer, but the economic and climate crises demands that we start that work today. Long-term commitments to creating green jobs in areas like energy efficiency are really good news, but we should not wait until the next parliament to make them a reality.

“By taking concrete steps in the coming months to deliver their green jobs commitment, the government will help ensure that we have warmer homes, reductions in climate pollution and new jobs across the country.”

The world faces two seemingly separate yet
 fundamental problems: COVID-19, the biggest
 health crisis in living memory, and climate change,
 the defining challenge of the modern era

Headlines focused on plans to hold a second independence referendum, but the statement, unveiled by Nicola Sturgeon earlier this month, also contained a host of measures aimed at achieving its mission to create “new jobs, good jobs and green jobs”, including  the announcement of a £100m Green Jobs Fund to encourage new opportunities in key growth areas as well as a £62m Energy Transition Fund to help businesses in the oil, gas and energy sectors to diversify their activities.

It also included £1.6bn to decarbonise heating in homes and buildings while reducing levels of fuel poverty, and £60m to support decarbonisation of the industrial and manufacturing sector.

Meanwhile the Scottish National Investment Bank, announced in 2017 and handed the aim of fostering moves to a zero carbon future, would receive £2bn in capitalisation over the next ten years.

Clearly, there will be a lot riding on the document. As the FM put it in the foreword: “Even before the pandemic, we knew we had significant work to do in order to improve the state of nature and meet our statutory commitment to be a net zero society by 2045. The impacts of the crisis have reinforced the need for that, but also the opportunities it presents. 

“This programme sets out the next phase of our Green New Deal announced in 2019. We will take forward ambitious commitments to transform how we heat our homes; giving us the opportunity to meet our climate and environment ambitions, whilst building a better economy and creating jobs.

“Putting a green recovery at the forefront of our approach offers many businesses the chance to innovate and diversify, and it gives individuals the opportunity to retrain and upskill in new and high-growth areas.”

The UK Government has promised similar action, with Boris Johnson pledging £350m to help cut emissions in heavy industry, construction, space and transport while also boosting the economy as communities across Britain struggle to emerge from the impact of lockdown.

In fact, the pandemic has seen calls go well beyond the usual environmental suspects, as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) emerged as one of the strongest advocates of targeted, green investment to help a sluggish economy while cleaning up the climate.

As director-general Dame Carolyn Fairbairn put it in opening the CBI conference: “For so many, this feels like a time of fiercely competing goals. The world faces two seemingly separate yet fundamental problems: COVID-19, the biggest health crisis in living memory, and climate change, the defining challenge of the modern era.

“But they are not separate. The response to one affects success on the other. And the defining question is, how does the UK use this moment to rebuild our economy?"

Clearly then, there is a growing consensus. Environmentalists want it, industry bodies want it, even the FM and PM seem to agree. 

The question though is when rhetoric will become reality. No one predicted the world would be sitting where it is, even a year ago, and perhaps the biggest lesson from COVID is that reality can be unpredictable. But still, as Professor Taalas warned, emissions keep rising.  

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