Coming out of Covid: how can we build back a greener economy?

Using carbon offsetting to lessen your impact as an individual is fast and efficient, but building a green economy requires a fundamental change in approach from the top down.

Aug. 12, 2020, noon by Anna Prendergast

On June 30th, Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined plans for the UK government’s post-coronavirus economy recovery plan. “We will build better and build greener but we will also build faster,” he said, addressing a handful of press at Dudley College of Technology. 

Comparing the current crisis to the moment between a lightning bolt and a thunderclap, he predicted that the full economic reverberations of Covid-19 are yet to reveal themselves. Already there have been over 170,000 redundancies; more than nine million are relying on the government furlough scheme (via Guardian), and business activity hit an all time low in April (via FT).

But despite the UK economy being predicted to shrink by 10% this year, experts in the field haven’t lost hope. Johnson’s commitment to “build back greener” reflects heightened pressure on leaders to use the pause imposed by coronavirus to accelerate urgent changes in policy, infrastructure and funding. On August 6th, Scotland’s economy secretary Fiona Hyslop echoed this shift in approach towards the economy as she announced measures to support employment and reduce red tape in planning applications. “We all acknowledge the scale of the challenge facing Scotland’s economy as a result of Covid-19,” she commented, “but we also recognise this is an opportunity to do things differently, and crucially to rebuild a stronger, fairer and greener economic future.” 

Whilst Johnson recently pledged up to £100million for the research and development of Direct Air Capture innovations (which removes CO2 from the atmosphere, extracts the carbon and turns it into rock beneath the earth’s surface), critics have noted that he still hasn’t provided an update on the £9.2billion investment pledged for building energy efficiency upgrades, which was announced in November 2019. So what does ‘building back greener’ really mean? And how do we maintain pressure on leaders to step up to the challenge?

“There are untapped opportunities to create an entire industry of new jobs in the environmental sector”. 

Economists such as Oxford University’s Professor Cameron Hepburn have been endeavouring to answer these questions. The Director of the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment published a global study in May 2020 that detailed how a “green route” out of the crisis also has strong economic potential. The study underlines how, for example, the building of infrastructures that harness renewable energy - such as solar and wind - is labour intensive, with the potential to create twice as many jobs per dollar as fossil fuel investments. In other words, there are untapped opportunities to create an entire industry of new jobs in the environmental sector. The study also supported the widespread criticism of unconditional airline bailouts (whereby governments strike a deal with airlines, effectively bailing them out in return for guarantees that the airline will hit environmentally-led targets by a certain date). It seems that now, writes venture capitalist Ronald Cohen for the Financial Times, is the time “to bring impact to the centre of our economic system, to overthrow the tyranny of profit, and to shift the basis for our business and investment decisions from risk-return to risk-return-impact”. Incorporating the idea of ‘impact’ into the foundations of our economy will spell higher-quality, longer-term returns (and if you want to know more about your own impact, use our free carbon footprint calculator).

This is a noticeable shift in attitude, particularly in comparison to the last time the UK suffered a recession in 2008. It comes as the result of cumulative pressure and increased discourse led by social justice groups such as Extinction Rebellion, a new generation of eco-warriors led by Greta Thunberg and the immediacy of the climate crisis - only exacerbated by a large-scale civilian reluctance to return to ‘business as usual’ once lockdown measures lift. Coronavirus has not only forced many to confront whether they are satisfied with their lifestyles, but it’s also proven the nation’s adaptability and ability to respond quickly to unprecedented government restrictions, which could set a useful precedent should the crisis demand a similar response. If this is indeed the moment between the thunderclap and the lightning bolt, let us not ignore what the lightning will illuminate for us.

Covid-19 has undeniably wreaked havoc on livelihoods and industries, and increased political polarisation - but more worryingly, the virus itself is just one of the many ways in which humans are paying the price for our ongoing exploitation of the natural world. From our mistreatment of animals to deforestation and everything in between, our relentless looting of nature is beginning to prove more dangerous than ever, and coronavirus has proved just how little regard for our capitalist culture the natural world has. If a worldwide pandemic can’t teach us that we should be putting people and planet over profit, nothing will - leaving us no choice but to redesign the way our world works with nature, rather than against it.