Friday 29 May 2020

After the Pandemic – No Going Back to Normal?

It might seem a little early to be talking about after the Covid 19 pandemic, since it is still very much with us, but many nations now, including the UK, are starting to lift the mass lock-downs of their people. It varies considerably between nations, with the UK in the slowest lane, but it is happening all the same and thoughts are turning to what the recovery will be like.

There is little doubt that we are heading for a massive world recession, which governments around the world hope will be short lived, with a bounce back in economic activity expected, and hoped for sooner rather than later. This course of in-action is by far the most popular amongst governments, with likely cuts to public services and the pay of the workforce and tax and fees for services likely to rise. It is hoped that the world economy will rise, phoenix like from the ashes in the not too distant future. Back to business as usual.

But not everyone is relying on this laissez-faire approach, or wants to get back to where we were before the pandemic struck. This week saw the release of an interim report by the Institute for Public Policy Research’s Environmental Justice Commission, titled Faster, Further, Fairer, Putting People at the Heart of Tackling the Climate and Nature Emergency. The commission is co-chaired by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and former Tory MP Laura Sandys, and they are joined by commissioners drawn from business, activism, academia, civil society, and trade unionism.  

The report says:

As the UK seeks to recover from the Covid-19 crisis, it is vital that we do not move from one crisis and accelerate headlong into another. Moreover, action to address the climate and nature crises can help the UK to recover better with a stronger economy, that is fairer and more resilient. There are enormous benefits to investing in projects up and down the country which will bring economic, social and environmental benefits from upgrading our housing stock to infrastructure for walking and cycling.

The report has ten headline recommendations:

Transform our economic model: Our economic model must place environmental and human sustainability, resilience and people at the heart of economic health. 

Finance the green economy: A transition that delivers for climate, nature, and people will require finance to be invested on an unprecedented scale into new solutions for a green economy.

Support sustainable industries and create high-skill, high-wage jobs:proactive and purposeful industrial strategy must support the transition to climate and nature safe methods of production, manufacturing, resource utilisation, and consumption. 

Build an education and skills programme for a zero carbon economy: The commission is exploring what reforms are needed to education and skills. 

Deliver a new ‘green social contract’: In the aftermath of this public health crisis and to secure a just transition in respect of the climate and nature crises, we must reassess the ‘social contract’. 

Deliver warm homes for all: The commission is exploring the best means to decarbonise heating from buildings and deliver a dramatic roll out of energy efficiency measures across the country. 

Decarbonise mobility: The UK’s transport infrastructure contributes significantly to the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions. 

Transfer power to communities: Power and money must be devolved to enable tailored and nuanced plans to emerge, and to enable communities to take control of the decisions that will affect them. This must include new forms of deliberation for policymaking including citizens juries and assemblies. 

Repair our natural environment: Repairing nature and biodiversity must be a priority for the benefit of our wider economy, for climate and for the health of our citizens. 

Lead the world: As the host of COP26 in 2021, the UK must increase its domestic policy ambition significantly in order to be a credible example to the rest of world.

There is mention of re-training oil and gas workers in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), which is still unproven on any large scale and one of those suspicious techno-fixes, as well as a role for private investment in the new economy. All of which makes me think that any good intentions here are likely to get distorted into more profit seeking by investment funds, but on the whole the report is a step in the right direction.

A new group, Healthy Recovery, with over 350 organisations representing over 40 million health professionals and over 4,500 individual health professionals from 90 different countries, wrote to the G20 leaders this week urging a healthy recovery from the pandemic.

They wrote:

Before COVID-19, air pollution – primarily from traffic, inefficient residential energy use for cooking and heating, coal-fired power plants, the burning of solid waste, and agriculture practices – was already weakening our bodies. It  increases the risk of developing, and the severity of: pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, heart disease and strokes, leading to seven million premature deaths each year. Air pollution also causes adverse pregnancy outcomes like low birth weight and asthma, putting further strain on our health care systems.

A truly healthy recovery will not allow pollution to continue to cloud the air we breathe and the water we drink. It will not permit unabated climate change and deforestation, potentially unleashing new health threats upon vulnerable populations.

To achieve that healthy economy, we must use smarter incentives and disincentives in the service of a healthier, more resilient society. If governments were to make major reforms to current fossil fuel subsidies, shifting the majority towards the production of clean renewable energy, our air would be cleaner and climate emissions massively reduced, powering an economic recovery that would spur global GDP gains of almost 100 trillion US dollars between now and 2050.

This group makes the connection between a pollution driven economy and poor health and calls for a reduction in carbon and other dangerous emissions. It recommends that clean energy should replace the burning of fossil fuels, to benefit people and planet.

There have been some unexpected benefits to the lock-down. World-wide carbon emissions have fallen by something like 17%, and nature has started to creep back. The big reduction in road traffic has seen deer entering suburban parts of outer London, and where I live in north London, I have noticed an increase in birds in my garden. Cycling and walking has increased. The environment has improved in ten weeks beyond what anyone expected, so these things can be achieved and quite quickly.

But be in no doubt that powerful forces will resist any move to maintain this progress, the big oil and gas companies chief amongst them. Governments are in the pocket of these corporations and are likely to pay only lip service to greening the economy and making it fairer. 

I have just heard, on the radio, the UK Finance minister, Rishi Sunak, being asked a question from a member of the public at the daily Covid 19 press conference, about this very subject. All he offered as an answer was that investment in CCS technology would be increased, which even if it did work, which is far from certain, would only lead us back to business as usual.

This is an opportunity to make our world cleaner and fairer, but will it be grasped? I very much doubt it will.


  1. what a pity the last few words of the Healthy Recovery statement looks forward to global GDP gains. i was with them up till then.

  2. "Decarbonise mobility: The UK’s transport infrastructure contributes significantly to the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions."

    I'd be interested to learn how this might be achieved. Electric vehicles with a huge national installation of infrastructure which would use vast amounts of fossil fuels? Providing subsidised batteries for private electric cars, using lithium and other materials extracted at enormous environmental, social and political cost (e.g. the 2019 military coup in Bolivia was in part because the democratic government wanted to socialise the profits from the country's potentially huge lithium deposits)?

    Words are easy. Reality is difficult.