Updated: Oct 2, 2020
As calls for a green COVID-19 recovery build, Friends of the Earth Climate Specialist and campaigner Muna Suleiman explains why and where the UK government are getting it wrong.
It’s certainly true that everyone experienced lockdown differently, but amongst all the pain and frustration it feels, in my little corner of London at least, as though the pandemic has fundamentally changed our relationships with the world around us. The stark bright spotlight of lockdown illuminated and made impossible to ignore problems that communities and activists have been shouting about for generations. From systemic racism and inequality, to vast gaps in access to green space and clean air, to the huge failings of an economy that puts profit over people, many have been forced to reassess what makes us successful as a society.
For too long we’ve lived in a system that treats some people as disposable and the planet we rely on as disposable too. Now we have the chance to change course and reimagine how the future could look; it’s not just about building a greener world, it’s about building a fairer world too. To transform our society for good, leaving no one behind. The government must steer the country to a sustainable future with green jobs, low-carbon travel, and through a community-led plan that puts health, wellbeing, and fairness first.
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) is one of many groups, think-tanks, charities and communities that have come forward to say that the aftermath of COVID-19 can be an historic turning point for our society and for our planet if the government acts now. The committee has added their roadmap for a cleaner, greener and fairer society to a growing pile of policy recommendations shown to have the best projected outcomes for boosting jobs, promoting an economic rebound and keeping our carbon commitments.
But the big question, as always, is: will the government listen, or will this be another opportunity wasted?
The CCC report showed that so far this government gets a clear failing grade and a ‘must try harder’ when it comes to matching the threat of climate chaos. Despite big talk of reaching net zero, and presidency of the postponed COP climate talks in November 2021, it’s clear that right now any claim of climate leadership is little more than hot air. And it’ll stay that way unless the government seizes the second chance that a green and fair recovery offers.
Now we can travel again it’s up to government to keep pollution down
Number one on the government’s hit list to build this greener future has to be transport. Transport is the sector with the most potential to cut emissions, and is historically overlooked by government because of the nation’s car reliance. Road transport is still the largest emitting sector, and according to the CCC only ‘partial’ progress has yet been made on cutting emissions. During lockdown we saw pollution from car emissions go down because we didn’t have a choice. Now we can travel again it’s up to government to keep pollution down by giving people better choices to walk, cycle and take public transport when it’s safe to do so. A strong investment in cycle lanes and public transport networks now is an investment in a fairer and healthier future for all.
By focussing on building roads, and squandering tens of billions of pounds and locking in emissions growth in the process, Boris Johnson is neglecting the almost 50% of low-income families who don’t have access to a car (and the proportion of women that don’t have access is double that of men). Building better and cleaner transport networks collaboratively with communities offers green solutions that work for everyone.
Home energy efficiency too is more than just a climate change issue, it’s an equality issue. The UK has a notoriously old and leaky housing stock, and more than 2.5 million households in the UK are in fuel poverty, a number which will only increase as poorer parts of our society are worse hit by the virus’s economic impacts, and in the event of a winter lockdown. The CCC report recommends swift action from the government to retrofit our sieve-like homes, keeping people warmer for less, creating thousands of jobs in green industry and making huge savings in carbon emissions.
In their report the CCC echoed Friends of the Earth’s calls for large-scale tree-planting and nature restoration, but if this lockdown has shown anything it’s that access to green space isn’t just an environmental nice-to-have, it’s an essential human need – and one that is by no means available for everyone. One in eight households in Great Britain lack access to a private or shared garden, rising to one in five in London. And in England, white people are nearly four times as likely as Black people to have access to outdoor space at home, whether it be a private or shared garden, a patio or a balcony. Transforming grey land like some roads or car parks into parks and community green spaces would help restore nature, fight deprivation and inequality and reduce carbon emissions.
We need ministers to take the lead by turning the crisis into a defining moment in the fight against climate change
To build the better world we know is possible we need to go beyond immediate actions with a plan that safeguards us well into the future. Climate investment will help create jobs, stimulate economic recovery, and drive down UK emissions. There are clear economic, social, and environmental benefits from supporting people to live differently by investing in walking, cycling, public transport and remote working.
We know that the old normal wasn’t working, not for the key workers whose jobs were undervalued, not for the Black and Brown communities whose lives are undervalued, and not for the planet we live on, facing the imminent breakdown of climate and nature. As lockdown starts to ease we are standing at a crossroads; in one direction lies the locking in of fossil fuel dependence and an economy that views lives and the environment as disposable resources, and in the other is a green and fair future with cleaner air, low-carbon travel and an economy and community that puts people and planet first.
We need ministers to take the lead by turning the crisis into a defining moment in the fight against climate change. The Chancellor’s speech on the 8th of July is the next opportunity for the government to show that they get it. If not now, when?