Pre-Covid 19, the climate change movement had gathered momentum with climate activist Greta Thunberg regularly in the news and people around the world striking in protest of inadequate government action on the climate crisis. However, now in a world overtaken by the pandemic, climate change is no longer at the centre and appears a more distant threat. The majority of the large climate change events due to take place this year have been delayed and policy announcements are aimed at supporting the current economic hardships. This is not surprising nor debatable, but there is a risk that, as Covid-19 dominates the news, policy and debates for a long time to come, this will overshadow any environmental initiatives that were due to be implemented.
Governments around the globe are navigating their economies through the pandemic and starting to think about the future road to recovery. However, there is an argument that it doesn’t have to be a case of ‘either or’, as there is the potential for policies to address the Covid-19 crisis and climate change at the same time. How policy makers respond now could shape the fight against climate change for the future. One of the lessons from the pandemic is that quick responses to high impact risks are vital to reduce costs. With that in mind, and given the costs of climate change, it is arguable that now is the best time to address its challenges.
Climate change and Covid
It is estimated that there was a total global loss of $3tn caused by natural disasters over the past decade. By 2050, cumulative damages from climate change are predicted to reach $8 trillion, impoverishing the world as a whole by 3% of GDP and the poorest regions by more. Climate activists argue that despite the economic consequences of climate change, the action taken by governments has been insufficient. In 2015, the then Bank of England governor, Mark Carney warned: ‘Once climate change becomes a defining issue for financial stability, it may already be too late.’
However, since the pandemic struck all over the world, there have been positive consequences for the environment. Pollution levels started dropping fast as airlines grounded fleets, car travel came to a stop and industries shut down. With 2.6bn people living under restrictions under their country’s lockdown, there has also been an impact on the environment, not just the spread of the virus. Given that the lockdowns across the world have come at huge social and human costs, is now not the time to ensure that these improvements for the environment are not just temporary but ignite long-term changes?
Given the clear impacts and risks of Covid on peoples’ health, our ability to change our behaviour quickly has been striking. The importance of behaviour change has been brought to the centre and, arguably, it shows that we are capable of change when lives are at risk and are deemed more important than business-as-usual GDP growth. The application to climate change, however, is not as straightforward, as the costs to human lives are often viewed as a future problem.
Dr Laure de Preux, Assistant Professor of Economics at Imperial College Business School, highlights the important role that cooperation across borders plays in the face of a global crisis like Coronavirus, and how that can be applied to the fight against climate change.
The big challenges the world is facing, including the climate change crisis, can only be dealt with efficiently through international cooperation. We cannot only act individually; the benefits of our actions are multiplied if integrated into a global strategy. In the case of COVID-19, social distancing measures can only be truly effective if they are adopted at a large scale.
World leaders are aware that their economies now face one of the most severe recessions in history as a consequence of the coronavirus restrictions. Governments are going to have to dedicate huge budgets to enable the economic activity to resume again. This presents a unique challenge, but also a massive opportunity for global cooperation. The question to be asked, therefore, is that if these stimulus packages are a one-off chance to transform the economy, how should the government spend it and what should be their focus? Should the recovery policies focus on creating a greener economy?
The European Union unveiled what it is calling the biggest ‘green’ stimulus package in history. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, told European Parliament members that this issue is about all nations and it is bigger than any one of them. The deputy Prime Minister of Spain, Teresa Ribera, states that there is a greater risk by not acting in this way. She argues that if the recovery is not green, then it will be nothing but a short-cut to solve the current problems rather than a true economic recovery.
It is not just in Europe where the recovery has an environment focus. Joe Biden is believed to be planning a similarly huge green stimulus package for the US. The model echoes the vast investment projects of the New Deal that helped lift America out of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
There are sound economic reasons why politicians see green technology as a prudent investment. Renewable energy is now often cheaper than fossil fuels in large parts of the world and the technologies are proven and can be built at scale today. The argument for renewables providing a pathway for clean future growth is based on the logic of much of manufacturing – the more you produce, the cheaper it gets. However, China does not appear to have similar plans for their recovery. China produces almost a third of the world’s emissions, as much as the USA and the EU combined. At the annual National People’s Congress, there was no indication that the big expansion of coal-fired electricity generation would be reversed, even though it is also expanding the production of renewable energy. China expanded its coal-fired power stations as a key part of its stimulus package after the 2008 financial crisis.
The UK government receives ongoing pressure from energy companies. The boss of energy giant SSE, Alistair Phillips-Davies has warned that a failure to deal with climate change could eventually have a greater economic impact than coronavirus. SSE wants the UK government to encourage private investment in renewables by giving the green light to big new projects, such as hydrogen and carbon capture plants and boosting electric vehicles. Despite the impacts of climate change not being immediately felt in comparison to Covid-19, Phillips-Davies argues that a failure to deal with climate change could lead to great long-term impacts:
While it is still too early to predict with confidence the full human, social and economic impact of coronavirus, we can say with certainty that significant investment will be needed to rebuild the UK economy in its wake.
It is clear that any pandemic-induced financial decisions made over the next 12 months will shape the global economy for the next decade. The full impact of the virus on climate change will be determined by the world’s stimulus measures adopted post-pandemic. Following the 2008 financial crisis, the energy-intensive stimulus measures that followed, particularly in China, boosted emissions. Therefore, if we are to meet the reduction in emissions target our response needs to be green, helping to shape a sustainable future. Dr Alex Koberle, of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, argues that Governments should take time to reflect, learn from past mistakes and redirect development towards a sustainable future.
Shouldn’t growth be given priority?
With 1.6 billion people working in the informal economy worldwide reckoned to be in immediate danger of losing their livelihoods (according to the International Labour Organization), is now the right time to be focusing on the climate? Industries such as airlines and car manufacturing are strategic industries, employing millions of people. Headlines of longer-term environmental targets will be given less importance than headlines of job losses. Recovery relies on the government finding ways to employ lots and lots of people. There is a close relationship between real GDP, employment and energy consumption. Therefore, any policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, unless carefully directed, could reduce economic growth and employment for both less and more developed economies. Such policies would increase the cost of conventional energy sharply.
Critics of a green energy policy for recovery argue that investing in renewable energy ignores the adverse effects of reduced investment and higher energy costs in other sectors. By governments prioritising policy to focus on the environment, they could harm the ability of most people to improve their own circumstances, especially given the terrible economic shock caused by the lockdowns.
With the majority of news in recent months providing little joy, there has been at least the positive impact on the environment. However, advocates say it not a cause for celebration and warn that any benefits are likely to be short lived. There have been some positive behavioural impacts but the true test will be what happens in the recovery phase. If the focus is returned to business as usual what happens to the targets actioned prior to Covid-19?
The immediate priority of all governments right now is to control the pandemic and to save lives. As their policy interventions have an impact and economies start to emerge from this crisis, then there is an important debate to be had about how new investments can help create a cleaner, greener recovery. We have learnt from the current pandemic that changes can be made when consequences are imminent, however, climate change is a threat that doesn’t go away, and is arguably just as urgent. Solutions to both crises can be integrated into a coherent response to propel the global economy towards sustainable growth and increased resilience.
- How will coronavirus shape our response to climate change?
- How coronavirus stalled climate change momentum
- Can we tackle both climate change and Covid-19 recovery?
- Coronavirus: Climate change ‘could have greater impact’
- Climate change: How a green new deal really could go global
Imperial College London, News, Deborah Evanson (11/5/20)
Financial Times, Leslie Hook and Aleksandra Wisniewska (14/4/20)
Financial Times, Christiana Figueres and Benjamin Zycher (7/5/20)
BBC News (26/5/20)
BBC News, Justin Rowlatt (31/5/20)
- A Greenprint for Building a Cleaner, More Resilient Economy
Letter to the Prime Minister, Alistair Phillips-Davies, Chief Executive SSE plc (25/5/20)
- Are government attempts to reduce the impact of climate change beneficial or harmful to UK firms?
- What policy instruments can the government use to increase economic activity?
- How does an increase in investment affect aggregate demand?
- What are the costs and benefits of economic growth?
- Why can climate change be described as a market failure?