Economic recovery and climate action - RSA

Economic recovery and climate action


  • Picture of Chris Rhodes FRSA
    Chris Rhodes FRSA
  • Climate change
  • Environment
  • Global
  • Leadership

The decisions nations make this year to recover economically from the Covid-19 crisis are likely to set in motion the extent to which, over the next three years, we control carbon emissions. This could set the course of the climate crisis up to 2050 and beyond. Chris Rhodes FRSA explores the challenge.

Awareness that if we are to mitigate climate change we need to curb our use of fossil fuels is now part of the public psyche; although the vast scale of change needed to check global warming to within necessary limits is less readily comprehended. Likewise, the hugely varied consequences of a rise of two degrees Celsius – rather than one or just half a degree less than this – does not seem obvious unless we appreciate the massive amount of additional energy absorbed into the earth system that this represents.

It is sometimes tempting to despair that zero-carbon will be attained by 2050, and the chances of doing so by 2030 appear far less compelling. Nonetheless, the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions that have been ‘achieved’, as an inadvertent consequence of locking down to control the transmission of Covid-19, might be taken to indicate that significant progress along this path is indeed possible. According to a study published by Nature Climate Change in May, the daily global emissions of carbon dioxide in April 2020 was almost one sixth of 2019 levels in the same month.

The question arises, however, of whether such an ameliorated emissions level might be preserved in the longer run. The subsequent ‘rebound’ in CO2 being poured into the atmosphere to within about 5 percent of 2019 levels, somewhat dilutes optimism about this.

Clearly, by simply curbing the billion tonnage of fossil fuels that we burn, CO2 emissions would be attenuated, but with economic catastrophe as an unwelcome bedfellow. Huge sums of money are being pledged by governments across the globe to stimulate their economies post Covid-19, totalling $9 trillion (about £6.5 trillion). Since, with the aid of these fiscal booster-jabs, the die will be cast for the global economy over the next three years, how the money is spent is critical. If it does not coincide with a dramatic and permanent fall in CO2 emissions, climate targets will become unattainable. In short, the time is now or never.

However, according to a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report, a ‘green alternative’ is within our grasp. Not surprisingly, this requires a principal emphasis on the proliferation of wind and solar energy, but also that buildings and industries be made more energy efficient, and that electricity grids are remodelled and updated. The creation of millions of new jobs across the world is vital, particularly in those nations where very many have been rendered unemployed, as a result of the lockdowns imposed to hold the Covid-19 crisis in check.

The report concludes that rather than injecting finance into the prevailing high-carbon economy, more jobs can be created by investing in such activities as retrofitting buildings, fabricating wind farms, installing solar panels, inaugurating new power networks, implementing greater numbers of electric vehicles, improving the energy efficiencies of industry, long-distance transportation, and appliances in general. In addition, a substantial shift would be needed towards more end-use renewables, biofuels production, and creating environmentally sound urban infrastructure. It is thought that such a ‘sustainable recovery plan’ could generate an annual 9 million new jobs.

While the European Union, for example, appears poised to initiate a swathe of green as part of its recovery, globally, little money has so far been directed toward low-carbon industries, with the majority of the pledged funding aimed towards their high-carbon counterparts. For example, the aviation industry is targeted for a $33 billion (nearly £24 billion) bailout.

As the Executive Director of the IEA, Fatih Birol, has commented, governments had an excuse to support these industries, as a first reaction to dealing with the suddenness and scale of the Covid-19 crisis, since “the first recovery plans were more aimed at creating firewalls round the economy.” However, some governments are still investing in high-carbon projects, such as coal-fired power stations.

There is an additional danger, namely that the currently available cheap and plentiful oil might act to derail the essential transformation to renewable energy. Especially at this critical time, to allow this to happen would be very short sighted, to say the least, and it is the longer game we must prepare for. As has been stressed elsewhere, the oversupply of oil is temporary and will finally be drained away into the enlarging backdrop of declining conventional fields.

A considerable opposing force to making such vital changes is the incentivisation of global capitalism, which, as a result of its massive resource consumption is now reckoned to be eroding the safe, operating space of human civilization, leading to breaches of key planetary boundaries, such as land-use change, biosphere integrity and climate change. There are also indications that it may be more difficult than is generally thought to transform to a low-carbon society, and until renewables have been established on a sufficient scale to achieve net energy payback, a large-scale expansion of low-carbon energy capacity will rely upon subsidies from the fossil fuels, which are, in any case, becoming increasingly scarce.

Most probably, a redesign of our system of industrialised civilization to use less energy overall, is the critical approach to addressing these issues. Primarily this will need to be through strategies of relocalisation: producing more of what we need – including food and energy – at the local level, and growing local economies. Energy efficiency is of equal importance to local, low-carbon energy generation, for example, better insulation and draught-proofing of buildings, while working from home or locally, avoids commuting and reduces demand for transportation fuels.

In order to address the most pressing challenges of society, it is necessary to move beyond sustainability and towards regeneration. This means embracing complexity and interconnectivity, rather than the separateness and linear thinking that has led to the current industrialised system, which is failing. Permaculture is an integrated, systems-design methodology that can be applied across a range of different situations and scales, and may provide the best route toward achieving future resilience. As a fusion of indigenous knowledge with modern science and technology, permaculture offers a means to meeting both essential material needs for energy, food, water, sanitation and also non-material requirements, across all societies, while preserving autonomy and harmony with nature.

This is a largely ‘grass roots’ approach, made through the efforts of individuals, but united by a sense of shared values and common purpose. We can continue to ask how long we have but the changes are already with us, and the cracks in the walls of the prevailing structures signal us to take urgent action. We must largely work within the framework that already exists, since there is neither time nor resources to raze it down and begin again from scratch, while total collapse would be catastrophic. Actions can be taken on the scale of communities, for example, taking the Transition Towns approach and – on the level of local businesses – adopting circular economies. Both underpinned by permaculture thinking, they follow the example that, in nature, there is no such thing as waste, only resources.

Professor Nate Hagens, a former Vice President at investment firms Salomon Brothers and Lehman Brothers, who now teaches ecological economics at the University of Minnesota, has said: “Not only are we speeding, but we are wearing energy blind-folds at the same time. But the momentum of our current system forces us to have conversations about a bigger system not a smaller one – so the correct and valid plans and blueprints are not discussed… It is a perfect storm – and when the waters recede we are going to have smaller, simpler and more local, regional economies.”

Hence, preparing the ground in advance of any collapse might prove the sounder strategy; this means shifting the focus away from the proverbial global village towards a globe of villages. The currently enforced working from home may become the new normal.

Chris Rhodes left school at 16 and went on to become the youngest professor of physical chemistry in the UK. As well as his peer-reviewed academic publications, he has written a novel, University Shambles, poetry and a children's book. He is an advisor on low-carbon energy to the European Commission, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and of the Linnean Society of London and has been involved with the Transition Towns movement for 10 years.

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