Climate Action in a Post-Covid World

Updated: Aug 24

Friday 4th of December 2020, Dave Olsen


The coronavirus pandemic has changed our behaviour and the economic and political imperatives. But the climate crisis simply won’t wait.



Climate action is as necessary as ever. In my last piece, I looked at the urgent need to act on climate change and the narrow window of time we have in which to change course and avert the very worst of the impacts of global warming, both on human society and on vital ecosystems.


But, as advocates for climate action, we must recognise the very unique and challenging situation we now find ourselves in. The public appetite for dealing with climate change may still be strong, but the economic and political calculus is much-changed from last year. Demand for politicians to quickly recover the economic damage has grown, and this is the public’s number one priority. Environmentalists face an uphill battle in this new social, economic, and political environment.


The Habits of Fear

The public has shown a remarkable willingness to trade off the habits of a lifetime in the face of grave, immediate, and salient danger. People have also shown a remarkable understanding of the need to introduce and maintain restrictions, despite the psychological, economic, and sociological damage. Faced with such danger, people  - and politicians – moved quickly to protect themselves and others. Coronavirus was an unknown, a deadly illness which struck fear into people, and which gave rise to quick action in response. It was and still is a crisis.

The problem with climate change is that it is not an immediate, sudden shock to the world. It’s a gradually emerging problem, and it still seems like a distant, future crisis to most people, not a now crisis. That’s why we have put off action for decades already, and why, even now, it’s still playing second fiddle to other concerns.


The aforementioned behavioural changes in the pandemic are important to our story, because of the new challenges they pose to environmentalists.


Of particular concern is the emerging refusal to use public transport due to the contagion risk it presents. This is a perfectly reasonable response to the pandemic, but if it sticks around, then we’ll be driving into disaster. Public transport is invariably better for the climate than private cars, even where the mode of transport is still polluting (buses, for example).


There are two especially worrying signs of the potential for this trend to become permanent. The first is political: the Chancellor announced in the Spending Review that there would be a new £27bn package for road-building, specifically citing the changes in behaviour during the pandemic. This kind of investment is a significant deviation by the Government away from their climate agenda, and a problematic decision in light of the fact that public transport will soon be safe to use en masse once more.


The second concerning sign is what happened in the largely low-Covid summer, where the virus had low, and declining, prevalence. Far from getting back to normal, people stayed away from public transport, with TfL Tube usage rarely hitting 20% of normal levels. In fact, the usage of public transport only started to increase as the government told people to go back to work in September and October, but even then Tube usage never passed 45% of pre-Covid usage.


By contrast, car usage fell to 20% in the first lockdown, only to hit normal levels again in August. Traffic decreased again as restrictions were reimposed, but as Britain emerges from Lockdown 2 , rubber will invariably hit tarmac.


But changed behaviour is by no means the end of the fresh challenges that are taking shape before us.


New Imperatives

Covid itself created an environment where behaviour needed to change to stop the spread. But the impact of Covid restrictions will shape the political and economic imperatives for years to come.


The economic imperative is straightforward. The economy needs to recover as quickly as possible, and then grow as quickly as possible to outstrip the debt payments and the budget deficit, else both the health of the public purse and the wider economy are at severe risk. With UK GDP down an annualised 11% this year, failure to meet this imperative would put millions of people’s lives on the line, and potentially create a bigger health and sociological crisis than any pandemic could.


Economic stimulus needs to be the focus, which will be sharpened by the political imperative to be seen to be putting the economy first. This imperative could mean that we have policies that superficially put the economy first, without doing what they say on the tin.


Furthermore, there is the political imperative of supporting those left behind by the widening inequality. As I explained in this piece, the Conservative majority is big, but very shallow. They have little room for manoeuvre if they are to keep their tranche of Red Wall seats. The Government needs to find a way to keep these voters onside, so a big priority will be channelling funding and investment into these constituencies.


Reconciliation: new imperatives meet old

The fallout of Covid-19 has undoubtedly focused minds in the Government and wider society on these new imperatives. But the old climate imperatives are not going away any time soon. Broadly speaking, there are two big things that the government needs to do to tackle climate change, according to conventional wisdom.


The first is to introduce market prices, to internalise the carbon, methane and water externalities. In short, this is where the government imposes a price on carbon emissions, for example, in order to reduce the cost of green technologies relative to emitting technologies, and to force both individuals and companies to change their behaviour to be more environmentally-friendly. (For a fuller explanation, see my piece on this here.)


Unfortunately, such prices are regressive, which means they impose a greater proportional burden on the poorest in society.Clearly, this would conflict with the Conservatives’ political imperative, and, we might also consider, moral imperative, to prioritise those who have been left behind during the pandemic. It would also increase short-term inefficiency in the economy, and so we might consider forgoing such pricing in the short-term, given our new political environment.


The second broad strand of action which the government must take on climate change is investment in green technology, both by reducing tax burdens on companies involved in research, development, and manufacturing, and by direct investment in government and private programmes, for example to improve electric car charging coverage across the UK.


This might not be the easiest thing to reconcile with the need to be seen to be creating economic growth for the government, given that the fossil fuel lobby has succeeded in creating a public perception that climate action always comes at a cost to the economy. But the investment would actually boost the economy.


Environmentalists must lobby for this investment first. It is the easiest argument to win, and the argument which will put environmental activists in the best public light possible, if we can make the argument effectively and in terms of aiding the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.


We must continue the fight, in the long-run, for carbon, methane, and water pricing, and of course, this pandemic does not end the need for other measures outside of these two broad branches of potential action, such as greater transparency in information and green nudges .


We have to keep pushing the Overton Window, and recognise the need for a collective, pragmatic approach in this moment which will help to win public support and make the case for effective climate action and economic reconstruction.


We are at an important crossroads, as a movement and as an entire people. Now is the time for radical, but measured, action.


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