The pandemic has reset the world. It would be a big mistake to try to go back to the old one, argues former Green MEP CATHERINE ROWETT.
Just four months ago, the UK elected a government which had two jobs to do: to get Brexit done and to organise the COP26 UN climate summit in Glasgow in November. Having made precisely no progress on either project (aside from ending our representation on all the Brussels decision-making bodies), the government has run aground on the sandbank of Covid-19.
The inevitable postponement of the conference seemed understandable in the circumstances but – given that this really is the planet’s last chance for decisive, global, collective action – appeared, on the face of it, to be a fresh disaster in itself.
Yet we live in strange times. And the delay may not be the worst possible outcome. For a start, the conference was destined to fail anyway, given the UK’s slapdash stewardship and failure to initiate the diplomacy required to secure meaningful resolutions.
And secondly, the Covid crisis has changed everything, anyway. Business as usual has been cancelled. So plans drawn up under the old expectations of what the world would look like between 2020 and 2030 are now out of date. And we don’t yet know how to lay new plans – though laying them together, by global agreement, would obviously be wise.
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Certainly, we’ve discovered a surefire way of bringing global carbon emissions (and the global economy) down a notch. Yet clearly this way of reducing emissions is not a happy way to solve our climate crisis. Government spokespeople have insisted that the virus ‘doesn’t discriminate’. But actually its effects are distributed very unequally. The pandemic is destined to exacerbate inequalities, to destroy the livelihoods of millions of the least well-off, to afflict those in poorly-paid front line work the hardest, and to expose the poorest countries around the world to impossible demands.
The pandemic is also showing up how inappropriately richer countries have planned their public expenditure. This includes the UK, where absurd amounts of money are spent on nuclear weapons, or wasted on no-deal Brexit preparations.
In this crisis, we seem to have discovered that socialism is the best way to find our way out of it. There are therefore good reasons to think that the economic and social rebuilding that needs to happen after Covid should be done with that model in mind. And rebuilding on that basis would help to address the environmental challenges we face: because the true blame for environmental deprivation lies not with economic growth as such, but with inequality.
The truth is that the world’s wealthiest are the ones responsible for the vast majority of global emissions (when we include aviation, shipping and consumption emissions). Our problem is not that there are too many people consuming the world’s resources and pumping out methane and CO2, but rather that a relatively small proportion of them are doing so to a quite unprecedented (favourite word at the moment) extent – or were doing so before they were locked down.
Inequality is killing us, not just in this global health pandemic, but all the time. The wealthiest are burning the most fossil fuels, and destroying the planet for everyone.
For the sake of the environment, then, we must not return to the old ways. One obvious solution would be to ensure that the established levels of inequality are eliminated: between the global north and south, and between rich and poor within nations.
Much could be achieved simply by ensuring that the exuberant lifestyle enjoyed by the wealthiest is cut back. Before this crisis, we were helping ourselves to more than our fair share of the world; we were taking our dirty footprints to delicate parts of the globe where animals and human beings can barely survive, without the added strain of drought and famine induced by global over-heating.
Even more can be achieved with investment in good jobs in green industries, a universal basic income – funded by direct taxation on the resources of those whose wealth is leaving others destitute – public health and housing programmes and real public transport that could leave our roads as empty as they are now. These things will all lead to a fairer, greener world. They are what must happen next.
What must not happen is any fiscal stimulus designed to rescue or restore the old ways, with their old and devastating consequences. The 2020s need to look completely different from the 2010s. But will they?
There is a horrible chance that this crisis could instead lead to backsliding. There are those who will argue that these difficult and dangerous times mean that we cannot afford to worry too much about the environment. Some administrations are already using state-of-emergency powers to suspend safeguards.
In the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Ontario, for instance, the authorities have temporarily loosened environmental regulations they argue could hinder their coronavirus responses. In other countries, governments are using the cover of quarantine and curfews to restrict the prospect of future peaceful protest and public assembly, silencing (among others) the environmental movement and Extinction Rebellion activism.
Signs from the aviation industry are also not encouraging. We’ve all read about the airlines asking for bailouts, but also shocking is their desire to renege on a measure they had recently adopted, to offset carbon emissions using their emissions in 2020 as their baseline.
Now that this year looks like having remarkably low levels of emissions, the industry is lobbying to rewrite the rules.
From an environmental point of view, sticking to the original 2020 baseline would be fantastic. It would put a realistic price on air travel, which could be scaled to target the frequent flyers and other non-essential journeys. Keeping the majority of our aircraft grounded, and re-localising our food-security and commerce – as we are learning to do during the pandemic – is actually a future we need to seek out and welcome, not one to be afraid of.
And that is one of the main lessons from this crisis: the need to look to the future, not the past. So while a few of the more laughable world leaders still have their faces turned backwards, as if an old world might be reconstructed, the wiser ones are looking at new ideas.
The good models are not yet emerging here at home, but it looks like Europe will set some good examples.
In Amsterdam, for instance, the authorities are embracing so-called ‘doughnut economics’ – a sustainable development strategy which attempts to balance the needs of people without harming the environment – to guide the city’s recovery.
And in Spain, the government is considering a plan for a universal basic income to form the basis of its economic renewal. These are the glimmers of hope in dark times.
And one other thing that we have learned as we live through these extraordinary times is that human kindness, friendship and solidarity are the most precious commodities, and that these humane responses come to the fore when we face a threat together.
When the threat of this virus has eventually passed, the environmental peril facing the planet will still be every bit as acute. But we must hope we will have discovered a determination, resilience and a kinship to overcome that threat too.
The pandemic has already led to new evaluations of who and what matters. From that will surely come a desire to give and share more than to consume and destroy. And that would be good for the planet too.