The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated our vulnerability but has also revealed our care, compassion and community spirit. The links we forge now in our communities will stand us in good stead for the work of pushing forward with climate action.
It is essential to keep the climate emergency on the agenda. Of course, resources and attention are focused on dealing with the human (and economic) cost of the coronavirus pandemic. But the climate and ecological emergencies have not been put on hold. They will still unfold and we have to ensure the need to restart economic activity won’t take precedence over cutting carbon emissions.
The good news is that arguments about not being able to afford to take action on climate change are now exposed as misleading and wrong. Lockdown, and the accompanying damage to financial markets and economies, has revealed that governments and central banks can rustle up the readies when needed.
Writing in the Guardian, historian Adam Tooze examines the extraordinary extent of the interventions by central banks around the world, and in particular by the Federal Reserve, the US central bank. Governments have also had to take action they would never have otherwise contemplated.
The damage caused by pandemics, it turns out, costs even more to fix than was laid out to prevent the 2008 global financial crisis turning into another Great Depression.
The indebtedness of governments after the 2008 crisis was used as an excuse to cut spending . Some commentators are already lining up to say further cuts will have to be made to pay for the new debts incurred in the current crisis. Restarting the economy will be the priority and we will all have to tighten our belts to recover lost ground.
This would be a disastrous response. Instead, the coronavirus crisis offers an opportunity for a rethink, about our priorities, our lifestyles and our future.
We have seen what a world without air pollution looks like, in some cases recovering views not seen for years. Some cities, most notably Milan, have decided that cyclists and pedestrians should have precedence over motorised traffic as the city reopens.
The mayors of Manchester and Liverpool have also called for a rethink, and urged the government against a return to “business as usual”. They want to keep some of the benefits we have seen from the pause in economic activity and advocate investment in walking and cycling infrastructure, and in retrofitting homes with renewable energy technology, thereby creating thousands of jobs.
The huge fall in the oil price could also work in favour of a greener economy, especially if oilfields have to be shut down. Of course, cheap oil is also a risk, as it could persuade people to choose fossil fuels over renewables. The fossil fuel companies will not give way without a fight, but they have already lost their social licence and the divestment campaign is starting to hurt their finances.
The Financial Times believes coronavirus could pave the way for a major change in political direction, with the pandemic having underlined the huge inequalities in society. In a recent editorial, the paper said:
“Radical reforms — reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades — will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the elderly and wealthy in question. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.”
Greening the economy will hardly look radical at all in that scenario.