Building back better means re-tooling, not simply starting up the engine again

Vaughan Lindsay, CEO, ClimateCare

Covid-19 is having a profound impact globally. Not only is it affecting our health and our personal lives, it is fundamentally challenging (and indeed changing) our political, social, and economic norms. It is also having a profound impact on the way in which we think about climate change too.

Correlations and parallels

Many have written articles over the past few months about the similarities between the pandemic and the climate emergency. I, myself, have also commented on this because the similarities are indeed very prevalent on first view.

Certainly, the parallels between the Coronavirus response and how we should collaboratively tackle the climate crisis should not be overlooked. For instance, tackling either problem will change our lifestyle in a number of ways, and we will all have to make short term adaptations for a much longer-term gain. Likewise, in both crises there is a requirement for coordination and cooperation; the efforts of any one individual will achieve nothing to mitigate the risk unless accompanied by efforts from many others. The pandemic has highlighted how important Government action is in galvanising action, so we all take responsibility together and fight this off together. I also believe that the pandemic exposes that we can all live differently, that we are all adaptable. But it has also, rather unfortunately, exposed that we can (as we have seen in recent days as lockdown is lifting), just as easily revert back to our original status quo too. This has left many who were hoping for long term behavioural change, scratching their heads somewhat.

Some fundamental differences

There are also some very important differences too between the pandemic and the climate crisis; namely the speed in which we actually witness any effects and how long we all live with the impact. Covid-19 is immediate, it’s on everyone’s minds, every minute of the day and it is rapidly escalating. We simply cannot get away from it. Climate change, on the other hand, feels like a much longer-term threat and doesn’t invoke the same kind of unease or fear. As Alex Steffen, a climate futurist, explains, it’s “not an issue, it’s an era”. Climate change is thus perceived by many as something that can be put on the backburner until we have sorted the current immediate threat from the coronavirus or Brexit or whatever comes next…. And this, for me, is concerning.

In my opinion, the short-term imperative of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic doesn’t alter the urgency of dealing with the climate crisis. It’s simply not enough to state that if we can deal with the pandemic, we can indeed deal with climate change too. This is a misnomer. And it’s actually very dangerous because it’s too passive.

Taking responsibly and building back better

The period after the Covid-19 crisis, and of course the way the pandemic is handled, could well determine whether we meet our emissions goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement (to limit global warming to 1.5°C to 2°C). To achieve a low carbon recovery, we all need to start taking responsibility for all our emissions collectively and, most importantly, right now. If we are indeed going to ‘build back better’ then we need to work towards a sustainable low carbon recovery and this needs to be done with realism and integrity.As a recent Mckinsey report reveals,finding a low-carbon, high-growth recovery formula isn’t easy. It requires assessing stimulus measures with respect to complex factors, including socioeconomic impact, climate impact, and feasibility.”

Reducing emissions to net zero by 2050, and hopefully sooner (2030), and building back better also requires real action by Government right now. To achieve net zero as soon as possible, we must achieve an annual emissions reduction rate which is 30% higher than that seen since 1990, when the UK benefitted from the movement away from coal. Whilst reducing energy consumption and making other quick win changes are important, they alone, are simply not sufficient. If we are going to make progress towards net zero, we must start by ensuring that everyone takes responsibility for their full emissions sooner rather than later and at the same time as we plan for longer term systemic change to decarbonise our economy.

An economy wide carbon price will ensure polluters pay

Government must make progress on putting the appropriate policies and frameworks in place, to ensure that individuals and businesses are paying for their impact in a fair and equitable manner. An important step in this is to establish a mandatory, society wide price on carbon emissions, reflecting the true societal cost of carbon as well as the cost of an equivalent reduction. Whilst this is something we have been striving towards here at ClimateCare, many questions have rightly been raised about how much this should be.

In fact, over the last few days, experts have warned that only assigning minor costs to CO2 output in the process will fail to make a dent in driving the sustainability of the global economy in the long-term and will in turn not meet the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals.

The OECD considers anything from €60 to €100+ a tonne to be an effective mid-point rate today and low-end estimate for 2030.

The target price must recognise the need for the UK to contribute to emission reduction projects both at home and abroad. These projects will not only deliver verified emission reductions which will offset today’s emissions, they can also provide additional positive impacts in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. This would help stimulate UK-based projects such as domestic sequestration through tree planting and peatland restoration. This will not only aid the climate and biodiversity but will go even further to help tackle ongoing climate-related environmental issues which we will all continue to face, such as flood management.

We also need global solutions to tackle this global issue. An effective global carbon market is critical. Kelley Kizzier from International Climate EDF has highlighted that the global use of carbon markets could allow the near doubling of climate ambitions at the same cost, relative to current National Determined Contributions.

Government is critical to ensuring we move at pace

While there is much corporates, organisations and individuals can and should do to take responsibility for their emissions, Government leadership is required to ensure we move at pace in the coming months as we start to come out of lockdown. They need to set a strong policy environment with a clear direction of travel and plans to incentivise, enable and catalyse change at the speed required to put net zero within reach and build back better.

Re-tool, rather than restarting the engine

Certainly, the tragic consequences of the Covid-19 crisis have taken immediate attention away from the threat of climate change, not least because institutions have devoted themselves to protecting lives and livelihoods. Some have noted that Covid-19 is just the prelude to the climate crisis, former Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, for instance, said that the main lesson we have to learn from the pandemic is that “Covid-19 is a dress rehearsal for climate change.” Whatever one’s belief about the longer term impacts here, we must all ensure we do not lose sight of the longer-term tragedy that faces us all.

The key here, as we come out of lockdown, is that we all need to retool, rather than start the engine back up again. This, along with a mandatory societal wide carbon pricing, will be essential if we are to bring about the scale of change required to fight the climate crisis.

If we are going to limit global warming and avoid catastrophic climate change, then we need to take full responsibility for our carbon emissions right now, as well as taking action to move to NetZero as quickly as possible. Or as Mark Carney has quite aptly stated in the past, “Firms that align their business models to the transition to a carbon-neutral world will be rewarded handsomely; those that fail to adapt will cease to exist.” Never before has this been more true.