What might a green recovery from COVID-19 look like?

As we move out of lockdown, the question of how the Government will choose to rebuild the economy looms large. IF researcher Melissa Bui explains why many climate experts and campaigners are calling for a green recovery, and she provides three examples of what that might look like

Great Britain reached an important milestone earlier this month: the drop in demand for electricity meant that we have been able to generate electricity without burning coal for two months straight, according to the National Grid. This is the longest period of coal-free generation in Britain since the 1880s.

Nevertheless, many experts have pointed out that this news provides little cause for celebration. After all, this outcome has been driven by what Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), refers to as “economic trauma” rather than carefully coordinated policies. Once lockdown restrictions are lifted within the next few weeks, the bounce-back in the economy will lead to a surge in emissions, thus highlighting once more the need to reduce emissions in a way that is rooted in policy.

We can already see the effects of easing lockdown. In April, global carbon dioxide emissions were reported to have dropped by 17% compared to figures from the previous year; however, emissions have since rebounded to approximately 5% below last year’s levels following the lifting of some restrictions.

Going forward, experts have been calling on governments to implement a green recovery to ensure that decisions made to rebuild the economy simultaneously work towards our climate change goals. The UK, as the host of the upcoming COP26, the most important climate conference since the Paris Agreement in 2015, is under pressure to demonstrate leadership on this front.

But what do we mean by a green recovery, and what might it entail? Last Thursday, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) released a string of recommendations for a “green, resilient COVID-19 recovery” in their annual report to Parliament. They have joined several other climate experts, economists and health professionals to put forward a range of policy suggestions. Read on for a brief summary of the CCC’s report as well as two other proposals (one from the IEA, another concerning a National Nature Service) that caught our eye.

Lower emissions, more jobs and economic growth

The premise behind a green recovery is to rebuild economies in a way that meets the triangular needs for a sustainable future: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, generating jobs and simulating economic growth – all of which have major implications future generations and intergenerational fairness.

Unfortunately, this is not how spending with respect to COVID-19 on the international stage has been directed so far. According to the analyst company Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the vast majority of recovery funds – $509bn (£395bn) in total – have been awarded to high-carbon industries with no conditions attached relating to reducing emissions or how that money is to be spent. Low-carbon industries have only received approximately $12.3bn in comparison.

Decisions to bail out businesses in high-carbon industries without conditions are primarily motivated by the risk of widespread job losses. However, as IF has pointed out in a previous blog, failing to attach conditions provides no guarantee that the funds will be used to protect jobs, and also means there is a missed opportunity to commit these businesses to lowering emissions.

Creating jobs through low-carbon industries

On the other side of the coin, investing in low-carbon industries can lead to widespread job creation, if we dedicate some spending on the necessary reskilling and retraining programmes too, the CCC claims. The skills that these programmes would need to provide include installing low-carbon heating systems in existing and new buildings, strengthening the energy networks, planting trees and renovating peatland, and installing resilient digital technology to enable higher rates of remote working.

The report also emphasises the need to continue promoting “climate-positive” behaviours such as remote working, walking and cycling as we emerge from the lockdown. In the CCC’s eyes, the government should lead by example by promoting these practices within public sector bodies first.

Encouraging the Government to look inwards more often could also bear fruit. The National Health Service is, after all, the Government’s largest emitter and accounts for around 4–5% of the UK’s annual emissions. So far, they have not met their 2020 reduction target of 35% below 1990 levels, and failing to improve the carbon efficiency of the NHS would mean that we will also fall short of the targets set for 2030 and, most importantly, 2050.

Nine million jobs per year globally

According to the IEA, who have provided similar recommendations to the CCC in their previous report, taking such steps on a global scale can protect and create 9 million jobs per year as well as stimulate economic growth. In their report, they have developed a plan for rebuilding economies all over the world between 2021 and 2023. It includes accelerating the use of low-carbon electricity sources like wind and solar, expanding and modernising electricity grids, and improving the energy efficiency of buildings and equipment, among others.

The IEA claims this plan will cost $1 trillion in total over the course of three years, which is equivalent to 0.7% of global GDP per year. Retrofitting buildings and enhancing energy efficiency within industries such as manufacturing, food and textiles have been highlighted as areas with particularly large potential for job creation.

A National Nature Service

What the IEA report makes no mention of, however, is the need to invest in conservation. According to a coalition of the UK’s biggest 50 environmental groups, we could be losing out on potentially high returns by not doing so. The coalition calls on the Government to train workers and fund projects across England as part of a National Nature Service, therefore going one step further than the CCC’s conservation recommendations. They have provided a list of 330 projects awaiting funding which are ready-to-go and range from introducing “tiny forests” in cities to hillside schemes to protect residents from flooding.

It’s suggested that such a service could generate 10,000 jobs and potentially high returns for society. For instance, funding 23 of these projects, which would cost £34 million in total, could generate benefits worth at least £160 million in flood protection, carbon storage and improved health.

Forging the path for a new normal

The Prime Minister’s speech on how Britain will emerge from the crisis last Tuesday did not, alas, contain much promise of a green recovery, so we will have to wait further announcements later in July. By that time, lockdown restrictions should have essentially come to an end and one question that will remain will be what aspects of normality do we want to return to.

The message from many environmental campaigners, scientists and economists is clear: we cannot return to “business as usual”. The silver lining of this crisis is that it has provided us with a key window of opportunity for the government to implement changes to meet global climate targets.

Importantly, these proposals also have demonstrated that there is not necessarily a trade-off between stimulating economic growth and cutting emissions. Indeed – as the CCC, IEA and the proposals for a National Nature Service point out – investing in projects or industries that help to tackle climate change can even generate high returns and create thousands of jobs.

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