The tragedy of the COVID-19 crisis has taken much attention away from the threat of climate change, as institutions understandably devote time and resources to protecting lives and livelihoods. Of course, the urgency of responding to the pandemic is arguably matched by the urgency of addressing climate change. Already, climate change is bringing on natural disasters that inflict billions of pounds in damage and loss to life and livelihoods.
In our attempts to repair the economic damage caused by COVID-19, a swift return to business as usual will be environmentally harmful, as seen around the world after the 2007– 08 financial crisis. The economic slowdown sharply reduced global greenhouse-gas emissions in 2009, but by 2010, emissions had reached a record high, largely because governments implemented measures to stimulate economies, with limited regard for the environmental consequences. The danger now is that the same pattern will repeat itself — but today the stakes are even higher. The period after the COVID-19 crisis will determine whether the world meets or misses the emissions goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The simultaneity of the COVID-19 crisis and the climate challenge means that the post-pandemic recovery will be a decisive period for fending off climate change.
Post-pandemic relief must come in the form of low-carbon stimulus packages. We need to identify policies that deliver large economic multipliers, reasonably quickly, and also shift our emissions trajectory towards net zero. In assessing stimulus measures, policy makers must balance socioeconomic benefits (number of jobs created per sum of money spent, the GDP or gross-value-added etc.) and climate benefits (tons of greenhouse gases prevented or removed per year etc.).
The following policy items look to be well-placed to contribute to achieving socioeconomic and climate goals and governments therefore, need to prioritise them.
Invest in clean physical infrastructure:
- Build carbon-capture-and-storage infrastructure around large industrial clusters.
- Reinforce the electricity-distribution grid to support widespread electrification.
- Expand large and community scale energy storage.
- Accelerate the build of wind and solar-power generation capacity.
- Scale up electric-vehicle manufacturing and expand charging networks.
- Create rapid bus transit and urban rail projects.
- Develop infrastructure for active transport (such as bicycling lanes).
- Mandate all new homes must be built to the very highest standards; with heat pumps or district heat plus super-fast broadband.
- Re-design our towns and cities around the 20-minute neighbourhood model.
Invest in building efficiency retrofits:
- Improve industrial energy efficiency through such means as replacing equipment and upgrading waste-heat technologies.
- Retrofit houses to increase energy efficiency – for example, by installing heat pumps.
- Install smart-building systems, particularly in commercial property, to better manage heating, ventilation, air conditioning, lighting, and security.
Invest in education and training to address immediate unemployment from COVID-19 and structural unemployment from decarbonisation. Prioritise re-skilling in carbon negative sectors.
Investment in ecosystem regeneration including restoration of carbon-rich habitats and climate-friendly agriculture.
In many countries, efforts to provide economic relief and restart growth after the pandemic are well under way. McKinsey (2020) estimates that the G-20 nations have announced fiscal measures averaging 11 percent of GDP – three times the response to the 2008–09 financial crisis.
Since recovery efforts usually involve much higher public spending than governments lay out in non-crisis years, they can be leveraged to bring about extensive, lasting changes. A targeted low-carbon program could not only restart growth and hiring, it could usher in the environmentally sustainable new normal that is required.