Building Back Better

6 principles for building a resilient recovery from the COVID-19 crisis

Countries around the world are beginning to open their doors and emerge from lockdown, although a return to ‘business as usual’ is unlikely anytime soon.

And while it’s heartwarming to see people reunited with extended family or returning to school or eating outside their local cafes (with the appropriate distancing in place), there is still a long period of recovery to come. And one that will be financed by government loans.

When surveyed, the overwhelming response from the population is that there are some things of the pre-COVID life that they don’t necessarily want to go back to. And in the conversations we’ve been having with people from diverse industries, backgrounds and locations, the message is clear: we need to use this moment as a catalyst for change, to move society toward a fairer, more sustainable way of living. To ensure that the fixes we put into place now will benefit people, planet and animals in the future.

Jamie Taylor, Unsplash

That message is reflected in a letter from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) to the Prime Minister published today that sets out six ways that the government can use the COVID-19 relief funds to rebuild the UK with climate policy at its core.

Lord Deben, Chairman of the CCC, and Baroness Brown, Chair of the CCC’s Adaptation Committee wrote:

‘Actions towards net-zero emissions and to limit the damages from climate change will help rebuild the UK with a stronger economy and increased resilience.’

Letter to the Prime Minister

They point to the benefits that will come if we invest in climate-resilient infrastructure, re-skilling our workforce for a net-zero economy, ensure our homes are future-fit, planting trees and ensuring people can walk, cycle and work remotely.

Karsten Wurth, Unsplash

This is important to get right because the policies we put into place today will have long-lasting impacts for everyone, but especially those who are most vulnerable among us.

‘The response to the pandemic has disproportionately affected the same lower-income groups and younger people who face the largest long-term impacts of climate change. The benefits of acting on climate change must be shared widely, and the costs must not burden those who are least able to pay or whose livelihoods are most at risk as the economy changes.

It is important that the lost or threatened jobs of today should be replaced by those created by the new, resilient economy.’

Letter to the Prime Minister

The six principles for building a more resilient recovery are:

  • Use climate investments to support the economic recovery and jobs, in initiatives that reduce emissions and manage the social, environmental and economic impacts of climate change
  • Lead a shift towards positive long-term behaviour that benefit wellbeing, improve productivity and reduce emissions, like home working, remote medical consultations, broadband investments and cyclist safety
  • Tackle the wider ‘resilience deficit’ on climate change, emphasising the importance of evidence-led preparations for the key risks facing the country
  • Embed fairness as a core principle as the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated existing inequalities and created new risks to employment in many sectors and regions
  • Ensure the recovery does not ‘lock-in’ greenhouse gas emissions or increased climate risk; support for carbon-intensive sectors should be contingent on them taking real and lasting action on climate change
  • Strengthen incentives to reduce emissions when considering fiscal changes with changes in tax policy or through carbon pricing

Not everyone agrees with tying economic recovery to planet-friendly policies. Writing for the BBC, Roger Harrabin notes that ‘some politicians have argued that jobs must be protected at all cost in the recovery from the COVID-19 recession’.

But if we view the global pandemic as a warning shot of things to come – future pandemics, disruption of food supply chains, climate change-fuelled natural disasters that impact different regions at the same time, restrictions on ‘normal’ daily life – we should see more clearly than ever that we are all connected.

As the letter states, ‘the pandemic is a stark reminder that the world’s most challenging crises do not respect borders and require strong collaborative global action.’

Credit: The Economist

But the critics do make a valid point that for people who are hurting now, they need immediate help. If you work in the fossil fuel industry, the aviation industry, the animal agricultural industry – there is legitimate fear for your livelihood today. And a re-skilling programme to switch to a job that supports a net-zero economy may not be realistic in the short-term.

To achieve a just and fair transition to net-zero, we need to support all industries to get there.

As Emily Atkin, the brilliant journalist behind the HEATED newsletter and podcast, wrote on 5 May, global demand for oil is falling to the point that analysts think we’re nearing peak oil – ‘the theorised time when the maximum rate of extraction of petroleum is reached’.

‘This isn’t a thing to celebrate, though. Solving the climate crisis requires a well-managed transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, driven by a desire to save lives and create better jobs. A pandemic-driven economic collapse is the exact opposite of that—which is why greenhouse gas emissions aren’t declining in any meaningful way, despite huge reductions in oil demand.

Indeed, the most significant side-effect of this whole thing is that workers are suffering…These are real people, with real families, struggling to make ends meet.’

Emily Atkin, HEATED Newsletter, 5 May 2020

That’s why the point about ensuring the recovery doesn’t lock-in practices that contribute to higher emissions and climate risk is so important. That part reads in full:

‘It is right that actions are taken to protect jobs and industries in this immediate crisis, but the Government must avoid ‘lock-in’ to higher emissions or increased vulnerability to climate change impacts over the long term. Support for carbon-intensive sectors should be contingent on them taking real and lasting action on climate change, and new investments should be resilient to climate change.’

Letter to the Prime Minister

Yes, we need to demand that the governments put climate policy at the core of their economic relief funds. But we also need to remember that the people working in industries contributing to climate change are still people.

And the transition to net-zero needs to work for them too.

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