What does the coronavirus crisis mean for delivering net zero policy and a successful COP26?
The world currently finds itself battling a major public health and economic crisis as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, yet - as the green economy knows only too well - it also faces a race against time to avoid a crisis of far greater and longer-lasting proportions in the form of accelerating climate change.
A decade that was already meant to be dominated by a rapidly accelerating green industrial revolution, while experiencing intensifying climate impacts has commenced with the worst pandemic in over a century. It is a perfect storm of full spectrum disruption that has spurred a dramatic realignment of priorities for governments and businesses worldwide.
The big question for business leaders, investors, and campaigners is to what extent will the health crisis and epic economic fallout disrupt and delay the planned net zero transition? Or will governments seize the opportunity to tackle the two crises at once, mobilising green investment in a bid to revive their frozen economies.
In the UK, the questions are particularly crucial, not least because the country is set to host the postponed COP26 Climate Summit next year. With the country having found a degree of political stability after more than three years of Brexit wrangling, there had been increasingly positive signals from the government that a raft of much-needed net zero policies were top priorities for 2020, as the Johnson administration looked to deliver on its considerable green manifesto promises. Now the top priority is saving thousands of lives and tackling the worst economic crash since the Second World War.
As such, it remains to be seen how many of the anticipated net zero policies and strategies will now be delayed and by how long. Encouragingly, signals are already emerging from Whitehall that climate action has not been pushed off the government's to-do list - far from it. COP26 may have been postponed until next year, but its President and UK Business Secretary Alok Sharma today co-wrote an article talking up the need to deliver a green recovery from the pandemic, and to push countries around the world to increase their decarbonisation ambitions ahead of the summit. It followed reports last week that Number 10 wants its three top priorities going into the coronavirus crisis to drive its recovery plans. Those priorities? Brexit, 'levelling up' the UK's regions, and delivering net zero.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt whatsoever that Covid-19 has transformed the battleground on which the debates over climate policy will be fought, and net zero is now being seen through a very different paradigm.
In short, "nothing has changed, yet everything has changed". That was a mantra that ran through a virtual conference organised by think tank Green Alliance yesterday, which saw several leading decarbonisation policy experts ponder what the current crisis could mean for climate action in the UK and COP26.
First to utter the phrase was Chris Stark, chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), who argued that while much remained uncertain about the deeper political, diplomatic, economic, and societal impacts of the coronavirus crisis, there would certainly be much to learn from it all from a climate action perspective.
"The context has changed utterly dramatically in the last few weeks, and yet the [net zero] goal that we need to reach hasn't," he said. "We have to pause and reflect on how much we can learn from what's happened."
Learning from a disorderly transition
As Stark pointed out, one crucial facet to the current crisis that may have wider implications for climate policy, is that the economic lockdown and unfolding recession - while necessary to avoid overwhelming health services - is nevertheless an intentional choice made by governments. That sets the current downturn apart from the last global financial crisis in 2008, and indeed and many of the recessions in recent history.
"It is astonishing," said Stark. "There has never been a moment like this. There is something of the order of between two and three billion people globally who would otherwise be working who are in some form of lockdown at the moment, thanks to the actions of government."
Those government actions have played out differently across the world. In the US, for example, millions of workers have lost their jobs and face huge economic insecurity. In the UK and most other European nations, meanwhile, huge state intervention has seen many workers received 80 per cent of their salary covered by the Treasury in order to curb mass job losses, although quite how the economy recovers and whether businesses can survive the post-lockdown period remains to be seen.
But such huge and sudden disruption and governments' reactions should offer lessons in how to deliver a just transition towards a net zero economy, said Stark. "We are seeing the impacts of a disorderly transition play out," he said. "What we need is an orderly transition, so we'll need to learn some lessons from that."
Those lessons include the critical need for the UK and other governments to rapidly upskill workers in high carbon industries that are likely to become redundant in the coming decades as economies shift towards net zero emissions. It also presents the need for detailed, long-term economic planning to guard against disruptions - as laid bare by the dramatic plunge in oil prices this week. As entire industries are mothballed, governments are getting a snapshot of the economic challenges that will result when some carbon intensive sectors are fully retired. Similarly, what happens as electric vehicles and other technologies lead to a permanent dampening of demand for oil?
Global governance systems must change to help navigate these economic challenges, argued Dr Thomas Hale, associate professor of global public policy at the University of Oxford, who also contributed to the conference.
"As a political scientist who thinks about international cooperation, what scares me most about Covid-19 is not actually the disease itself but actually how it has shown the fragility of some of our global and national governance systems," he said. "We've seen a very ad hoc set of responses from governments around the world. We haven't seen governments fall into line behind scientific evidence in a consistent way. Some have acted quickly, and some have acted slowly, and there's huge differences in the outcomes."
The goal of fully decarbonising the global economy will almost certainly need more international co-operation than has been evident in the past few months. "If we were giving out report cards now [on the response to coronavirus] there would probably be more fails than passes," Hale continued. "That's a bit of a cause for concern if we're thinking about how climate change is going to multiply and replicate these kinds of challenges over the next century. This is really something that shows how we need to make our governance systems more effective and responsive, urgently."
UK in the diplomatic driving seat
The hope is that both the run-up to and results from the critical COP26 summit, which is now set to take place next year, can help bolster international cooperation and governance on climate change and the net zero transition, meaning the UK now arguably has an even more vital role than it did before.
There are a number of crucial events that promise to influence the success of the summit in the meantime, of course. Firstly, it remains to be seen how countries such as China respond to the current crisis and how they direct their economic recovery, and then there is the small matter of the US election in November, which will see the world's largest economy either fully exit or rapidly re-enter the Paris Agreement.
Observers hope that regardless of how these crucial events play out, there will at least be clarity around the political context in which COP26 has to operate. Moreover, there is now more time to get the diplomatic ducks in a row in a bid to to deliver a successful COP26 outcome that sees critical outstanding elements of the Paris Agreement finalised and many more countries submit enhanced decarbonisation plans. Given the UK will play host to next year's G7 meeting, while COP26 co-host Italy is set to hold the G20 meeting in 2021, there are now several opportunities to exert some much needed diplomatic pressure.
"By some strange twist of fate, the UK actually finds itself in the driver's seat for some of the biggest diplomatic events that will happen during critical juncture," said Hale.
That places huge pressure on the UK government to deliver both internationally on climate, and also to come up with ambitious net zero policies and a green coronavirus recovery on a domestic front too.
As Camilla Born, deputy strategy director of the COP26 unit in the Cabinet Office, said during the call "there's a lot to think about".
"We still have to maintain the focus on those [diplomatic] priority areas that we had before - ambition, adaptation, resilience, nature, finance, zero emission vehicles, energy transition," she explained. "That still remains the same, and we still have to get that negotiated outcome, but we do need to understand how the world is profoundly changing around us and understand how we can refresh and realign our approach. So we've got the strongest tactics and the strongest strategies for really getting to where we need to get to, which is much more ambitious action across the world."
Covid-19 may be the immediate priority, but it seems COP26, climate action, and the net zero transition will be very much at the top of the UK government's agenda for much of the next year.
UK policy action
But how quickly can the government translate this commitment into effective new policies, when the vast majority of Whitehall resources are focused on the immediate health crisis. Last month's Budget contained a number of encouraging new green policies, but the crucial Energy White Paper, Brexit-related environmental legislation, the promised green heat strategy, and the overarching NDC are all still in the pipeline and are likely to be impacted to varying degrees by the coronavirus outbreak.
The CCC is now set to deliver advice to the UK government on a green recovery from the current crisis as part of its annual progress report in June, and it is likely to spark a lot of important discussions around the level of policy ambition the government is pursuing.
During the conference call, for example, Stark pondered whether the many millions of Britons now working from home with their cars parked outside rather than on the road might highlight a need to invest more money in rolling out 5G broadband, rather than more road building. Equally, with oil prices having hit record lows and likely to stay low for the foreseeable, perhaps now may be an opportunity to levy carbon taxes on fossil fuels, he suggested.
Moreover, given the scale of the economic shock that few businesses were prepared for with Covid-19, there is clearly a need to better manage and price risk into business strategies and financial investments with regards to climate change, Stark added. And most pressingly, of course, if struggling industries such as the aviation sector are to secure government bailouts, should that money come with green strings attached?
Stark suggested the CCC would look to reflect on these issues and more in its advice to government in June, which will now be hotly anticipated across the green economy, particularly given the government is set to unveil its long-awaited National Infrastructure Strategy this year.
"Let's make sure that that goal of net zero emissions, which of course is a scientific goal, is used in the right way to frame up the right response," Stark said. "I think we can come out of this better after this crisis."
How it all plays out, of course, remains to be seen and it is too soon to say whether greater government intervention and the sorts of societal behavioural changes seen over the past month are likely to become more of a fixture once the current crisis is over.
As Hale pondered, "to me the key variable that we need to think about is whether these ideas translate into enduring political coalitions past this immediate crisis? Or is it just a flash in the pan?"
But while much is uncertain at present, the long-term goal posts have not moved, and if anything tackling the still-urgent climate crisis offers a pathway out of the current coronavirus crisis. Nothing has changed, it seems, yet everything has changed.
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