No Going Back
Hello. I’m Anthony Day and this is the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 19th June. Today's theme is No Going Back.
I've read so many articles recently saying that there is no going back to business as usual and more are pouring in every day. “Green Recovery” and “Build Back Better” are rapidly becoming clichés as people want to use the exit from lockdown as an opportunity for change. There are calls to do things differently from charities, pension funds, scientists, political parties, the Ecologist, XR and The Climate Coalition, among many others. Will you be lobbying your MP about it on 30th June, and will climate campaigns survive the pandemic or is this a dress rehearsal for the climate crisis? In some places traffic levels are already climbing beyond what they were before the virus, so are we already too late? The IEA gives us 6 months to get things under control and in other news BP takes a hit, sustainable coffee takes a new tack and Unilever takes aim to reduce its impact.
Let’s start with a quotation from economist John Maynard Keynes.
"The idea of the future being different from the present is so repugnant to our conventional modes of thought and behaviour that we, most of us, offer a great resistance to acting on it in practice.”
J M Keynes
It’s bit deep, so I’ll read it again.
I think it’s particularly true if you change it to read, “The idea of the future being worse than the present…” although if you promise that the future will be just as good or even better than the present there is still much resistance to change.
Writing for The Guardian, Fiona Harvey quoted the UN’s sustainable business chief.
“The coronavirus pandemic is “just a fire drill” for what is likely to follow from the climate crisis, and the protests over racial injustice around the world show the need to tie together social equality, environmental sustainability and health.
“The overall problem is that we are not sustainable in the ways we are living and producing on the planet today,” said Lise Kingo, the executive director of the UN Global Compact, under which businesses sign up to principles of environmental protection and social justice. “The only way forward is to create a world that leaves no one behind.”
She said there were “very, very clear connections” between the Covid-19 and climate crises, and the Black Lives Matter protests around the world, which she said had helped to reveal deep-seated inequalities and “endemic and structural racism”.
Pandemic is a Portal
In an article in FT called “The Pandemic Is a Portal” novelist Arundhati Roy says,
“Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality’, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.” —
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
Commenting on this, Ted Franklin of truthout.org says, “Capitalist economics vacillates between apologetics, obscurantist mathematical fantasies and nostrums that advance the interests of the power elite while purporting to serve the common good. None of this will meet the challenge of rebuilding an economy that works for common folk, let alone one that can save us from looming ecological collapse — the catastrophe that awaits on the other side of Arundhati Roy’s portal.”
And he warns that some expect the pandemic to persist for at least three years, and that’s the best-case scenario. Talk of a v-shaped recession is hopelessly optimistic.
Come back Lenin
Andreas Malm is associate senior lecturer in human ecology at Lund University. In an interview for jacobinmag.com he says, “To Halt Climate Change, We Need an Ecological Leninism” which he describes as drastic state intervention. Echoing Arundhati Roy’s comment about the virus making the mighty kneel, he says there is
“…one major difference [between the virus and the climate crisis]: the anomaly that COVID-19 also hit the rich at an early stage, with capitalists, celebrities, and political leaders falling ill, people who have no vulnerability to the climate crisis at this stage. Unlike the impact of global warming, the transmission of coronaviruses follows aviation lines and, to put it simply, rich people fly more than poor people. While the pandemic was spread by other channels upon arrival in different countries, aviation provided the primary entry point for the virus, giving rise to the paradox that rich people were among the first to contract the virus. In Brazil, for example, it was the affluent section of society who introduced the virus, but now it is ordinary working-class people who are dying in droves. This has simply not been the case with climate change disasters, and it is one of the key factors that explains the strikingly different reaction on the part of governments.”
Will climate action survive?
Mark Cliffe, writing in Think Economic and Financial Analysis from ING Bank, asks “Will climate action survive COVID-19?” He believes that any green recovery will only succeed if it respects the concerns of the people, principally jobs. The pandemic has reinforced respect for scientists and made it clear that there are serious penalties for delays to taking action. It has demonstrated that many people are willing to make sacrifices but many are facing unemployment and bankruptcy.
There are undoubted pressures for a return to business as usual and as quickly as possible. The United States seems to have turned its face against a green recovery and has even lowered the fuel efficiency requirements for vehicles. China has delayed the introduction of its own vehicle emissions standards. The collapse of the oil price which currently stands around $38 a barrel compared with $60 at the start of the year puts pressure on the competitiveness of renewable energy. The need for social distancing is forcing many people to take the car instead of public transport. Nevertheless, maybe governments can take drastic action as Andreas Malm suggests. Governments have taken drastic action during the pandemic and may be trusted to take more drastic action to ease the exit from lockdown. The level of trust will of course vary across the world.
And the occurrence of storms, fires or floods would help to remind people of the seriousness of the climate crisis and reinforce support.
What’s the Solution?
Universal Basic Income
Writing in The Conversation, D.T. Cochrane of York University in Canada says we need immediate implementation of a universal basic income (UBI) combined with a job guarantee. I'm not sure about the job guarantee but I fully support the idea of a universal basic income. As he says, a basic income supports financially precarious people with the money they need and keeps money flowing through the financial system. He calls on governments to protect people this time rather than institutions as they did after the financial crisis.
There are two common objections to a universal basic income. Some say that it destroys the incentive to work and others say that they don't need it so it should only go to those that do. If we look upon UBI as a social dividend, a share in the wealth created by the nation as a whole, then surely everyone should share in it equally. If everybody is entitled to a universal basic income then it is far simpler to administer. And when I say everyone, that means children as well, although possibly at a lower rate. A basic income will make far more difference to people at low income levels than to the well-off, and the tax system can be adjusted so that higher earners pay it back.
Is it a disincentive to work? Only to those who have low aspirations and are content to live on a basic minimum. In the UK at present, anyone on benefits will lose all or part of those benefits if they get work. It’s been calculated that that’s equivalent to an 82% tax rate, far more than the rich have to pay. That’s a disincentive to work. If claimants get a short term contract at a level which stops all their benefits the risk is that at the end of the contract it could take some time to get the benefits reinstated so they could face several weeks without any income at all. That must be a disincentive to work. If they can take a job, even a full time job, and know that they will not lose any of their UBI then they are more likely to work. They will have more money, and more spending power to support other parts of the economy.
If we are to have a green recovery or any sort of recovery after this pandemic it needs to be on a firm foundation and I believe that UBI is an essential element to the stability of that foundation. For more on this read “Basic Income: And how we can make it happen,” by Professor Guy Standing of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
Greenpeace is petitioning the government to establish green jobs as part of the recovery. If you want to sign their petition you'll find the link on the blog.
Call to Action
This week the Climate Coalition sent a letter to the Prime Minister countersigned by 59 charitable organisations ranging from the Women’s Institute and the Soil Association to Oxfam, Islamic Relief UK and Surfers Against Sewage. The letter enclosed a ‘Plan for a Green, Fair and Healthy Recovery’, and set out seven priority areas for action. Briefly these include:
- Create over 100,000 clean energy jobs in the areas of greatest need.
- Set up a Climate Infrastructure Bank, increase financial powers for local authorities and develop a Climate Finance Plan.
- Get us on track to net-zero and 1.5°C & ensure all bailouts for business are conditional on plans and action to do the same.
- Prioritise investment in the transition to a UK land use and farming system that delivers for nature, climate and human health
- Align all UK public finance abroad with a just energy transition, ending fossil fuel finance.
- support debt relief to enable developing countries to tackle both the COVID-19 and climate crises.
- Engage with the international community to halt and rapidly reverse the decline of biodiversity and nature globally.
This is an abbreviated summary. Links to the letter and to the recovery plan are on the blog. The letter requests an opportunity to meet with the Prime Minister. I’ll let you know how that goes if it happens.
Action This Day
Whatever happens, it needs to be done quickly and it needs detailed planning. It’s essential to get it right. Let’s hope the government and other governments across the world will assemble the right expertise to make it happen.
Christine Allen, director at aid agency Cafod, said: "Ministers have said a lot about drawing up recovery plans which recognise that helping the economy means creating green jobs and investing in measures to protect our common home. Now we need the Prime Minister to turn words into actions.”
Firstly though, I think we need some specific plans.
Jonny Barstow in Energy Live says that the government should help establish pension ‘superfunds’ to invest in the UK’s green recovery. That’s the suggestion from think tank The Social Market Foundation, which says merged pension funds would be the ideal financier of building new roads, power sources and communications networks. The taxpayer would take much of the risk and the pension funds would have a solid long-term investment matching their preferred risk profile. I’m not clear how this differs from the government borrowing to spend on building infrastructure. Given that governments can currently borrow at extremely low rates - 1% or less which is vastly less than you or I will have to pay for an overdraft, mortgage or credit card - let’s do it. But at all costs let’s avoid the PFI (Private Finance Initiative), which left schools and hospitals paying the costs of new buildings several times over.
A recent article in the journal Nature Climate Change examines the temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement. The team, led by Corinne Le Quéré of the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, reports that “…Daily global CO2 emissions decreased by –17% by early April 2020 compared with the mean 2019 levels, just under half from changes in surface transport. At their peak, emissions in individual countries decreased by –26% on average. The impact on 2020 annual emissions depends on the duration of the confinement, and could be between –4% and –7%.
The estimated decrease in daily fossil CO2 emissions from the severe and forced confinement of world populations are extreme and probably unseen before. Still, these only correspond to the level of emissions in 2006. The associated annual decrease will be much lower, which is comparable to the rates of decrease needed year-on-year over the next decades to limit climate change to a 1.5 °C warming.
The authors warn that several drivers push towards a rebound with an even higher emission trajectory compared with the policy-induced trajectories before the COVID-19 pandemic, which include calls by some governments and industry to delay Green New Deal programmes and to weaken vehicle emission standards, and the disruption of clean energy deployment and research from supply issues. The extent to which world leaders consider the net-zero emissions targets and the imperatives of climate change when planning their economic responses to COVID-19 is likely to influence the pathway of CO2 emissions for decades to come.
Reports from the RAC, the BBC, Autoweek and others indicate that traffic levels are not only likely to reach pre-COVID levels as we leave lockdown, but to exceed them. On the one hand the problems with social distancing and reduced capacity on public transport make it much more attractive to travel by car. On the other hand a lot of organisations have found that the productivity of people working from home is as good as or better than if they were coming into the office. Commuters have said that they have been glad to give up the commute. Will we really all go back to travelling in to some remote office to do things that we've proved we can do at home?
Bright Green reports that the 31st European Green Party Council: Securing a Green Recovery from COVID-19 took place last week. The Restart Panel discussed the options for a sustainable recovery. All were in favour of a sustainable recovery but the Green Party Council is of course is an influencer, not a decision-making body.
politicshome.com reports that some of the UK’s leading nature conservation charities have produced a blueprint for how plans for up to a million new homes can include nature to create happier and healthier communities for people and wildlife. The idea is to put these houses in what is known as the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, and conservationists are asking the Government to look at this as the perfect opportunity to invest in nature, improve people’s lives and realise the green recovery by building the new nature friendly towns and communities everyone wants to see. In other reports there is criticism of plans to build new communities on the edge of existing towns. These will not be big enough to support shops, schools or any community infrastructure, so residents will have to do everything by car. Hopefully this will not be the situation in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc.
I mentioned the Climate Coalition and they are setting up a virtual lobby of members of Parliament for the 30th of June. The plan is for people to request their MPs for an online meeting to urge the adoption of green policies as part of the recovery. If you want to take part you'll find the link on the blog.
There's always news on energy, and current-news.co.uk reports that green energy firms have been found to be more profitable. This is according to new research from the LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. They urge the government to introduce policies to drive low-carbon technologies in emissions-intensive sectors, such as transport and steel. The government should also support financing costs for green investments and encourage investment in new technologies along the supply chain to ensure decarbonisation is economically viable. Mandatory labelling to identify the emissions impact of a product or service is also recommended.
News Just In…
There's a special report just out from the International Energy Agency. They say,
Since the scale of the economic crisis began to emerge, the IEA has been leading the calls for governments to make the recovery as sustainable and resilient as possible. This means immediately addressing the core issues of global recession and soaring unemployment – and doing so in a way that also takes into account the key challenge of building cleaner and more secure energy systems.
As they design economic recovery plans, policy makers are having to make enormously consequential decisions in a very short space of time. These decisions will shape economic and energy infrastructure for decades to come and will almost certainly determine whether the world has a chance of meeting its long-term energy and climate goals.
The IEA’s Sustainable Recovery Plan – as set out in this report – shows governments have a unique opportunity today to boost economic growth, create millions of new jobs and put global greenhouse gas emissions into structural decline. This work was done in collaboration with the International Monetary Fund.
The biggest global economic shock in peacetime since the 1930s is having a severe impact on employment and investment across all sectors, including energy.
In response to calls from governments around the world, the IEA has produced a Sustainable Recovery Plan for actions that can be taken over the next three years.
Based on rigorous analysis conducted in co‑operation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Sustainable Recovery Plan has three main goals: boosting economic growth, creating jobs and building more resilient and cleaner energy systems.
Governments are set to make major decisions that will affect huge amounts of investment and shape infrastructure and industries for decades to come.
Our Sustainable Recovery Plan shows it is possible to simultaneously spur economic growth, create millions of jobs and put emissions into structural decline.
A link to the full report is on the blog.
All in all, the calls for a green recovery are becoming pretty deafening. Will governments rise to the challenge?
And in Other News…
BP announces that it will slash up to $17.5bn (£14bn) from the value of its oil and gas assets, and may be forced to leave new fossil fuel discoveries in the ground, after its own forecasts found the Covid-19 pandemic may affect the world’s oil demand for the next 30 years. And the accelerating move towards electrifying the transport fleet may have some effect on that as well.
Sustainable coffee can now arrive by sustainable transport. Yallah Coffee, based in Falmouth, Cornwall in the southwest of England, received a shipment of coffee beans delivered by sailing boat from Colombia. The carbon footprint of the shipment is far lower than by container ship or aeroplane and Yarrah have held prices comparable to coffee shipped by those more usual means. Shipping by sailing boat takes longer and is only possible when the weather permits, but Yarrah Coffee is coping with this by holding larger stocks.
Finally, Unilever has announced that it will spend €1 billion to help reduce the impact of climate change throughout its production and distribution processes.
Working alongside farmers, governments and organisations in the next decade, the climate and nature fund aims to restore forests, soil and biodiversity, with likely projects including reforestation, wildlife protection and water preservation.
The company has also committed to achieving net zero emission by 2039 – more than a decade ahead of the 2050 Paris Agreement deadline – as well as a deforestation-free supply chain by 2023.
And that’s it…
…for another week. Thank you for listening to the Sustainable Futures Report and thanks to my patrons for supporting the production of this podcast. Unlike many podcasts the Sustainable Futures Report is not monetised through advertising, sponsorship or subsidy. I do get support through Patreon, however, which covers the costs of hosting, transcribing interviews and the occasional purchase of research papers. This comes from a select band of patrons who contribute anything from $1 per month. You, too, can join that number and all you need to do is visit patreon.com/SFR . I'm also very grateful to the people who get in touch with ideas and information which helps me develop the content for each episode. Please do contact me to share your ideas about future and past episodes. There's no point in doing this if it isn't what you want to hear. Contact me at email@example.com.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
I’m Anthony Day.
I'm already stacking up stories for next week, so I'll be back then.
Bye for now!
Climate Action Letter
Traffic after lockdown
London congestion charge increased
News Just In
In Other News
BP expects to take $17.5bn hit due to coronavirus writedown
Coffee for sail: wind of change in sustainable shipping