The coronavirus pandemic will change the world, but it is impossible to know how - the green economy must now strive to shape the new normal
'Every cloud has a silver lining' is a gorgeously evocative phrase when you think about it.
Like all the best idioms it is elegant, beautiful, ubiquitous, reassuring, and kind of true, both figuratively and literally. Every cloud has an edge and when that edge catches the sun it glimmers like silver. We know this to be true. Equally, there is something innate in our belief in a better future. Call it optimism bias, call it the indomitable human spirit, whatever it is, it exists. Even in the darkest of times, we tell ourselves stories of recovery and rejuvenation, of courage and hope.
'Every cloud has a silver lining'. The phrase is so instantly recognisable that it works both as itself and as two contractions. 'Every cloud…', 'silver linings'.
But storms can kill. Where are the silver linings then? They may exist, but they can only be realised once the tempest is safely navigated.
Our reassuring old saying suggests silver linings are a natural state. Every cloud has them, apparently. But when the wind howls and the sky turns dark there is little chance of identifying them if we sit passively and hope for the best. Silver linings can prove to be a deadly mirage.
Right now, as the worst pandemic in over a century sweeps the globe stretching health systems and economies to breaking point, there are no silver linings. Indeed, the search for them, while instinctively understandable and psychologically comforting, could prove to be counterproductive.
As the crisis escalated, before the reality of overwhelmed intensive care units started to dawn, there was more than a little speculation about how this global health emergency would curb greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality, and encourage more sustainable working practices and localised communities. Less flying, more working from home, a new appreciation of the simple things in life.
All true, perhaps. But falling emissions driven by economic distress are rarely sustainable, and easily reversible. Enforced systems change, imposed without public consent, will never last.
More important still, the biggest threat to a net zero transition that is fast winning the economic argument remains a culture war backlash against accelerating decarbonisation. Allowing opponents of climate action to paint the inconvenience and isolation of the most traumatic period most people have ever lived through as part of some green masterplan, as Stephen Pollard did this week for Unherd, is emotionally tone deaf and strategically dumb. "Is this what a green world looks like?" Pollard asks. No, obviously not, is the answer. But his is a narrative that could stick if environmental campaigners celebrate this year's inevitable emissions reductions and changed working patterns too vociferously. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres observed this week in a withering response to a question about sharply falling emissions projections, "we will not fight climate change with a virus".
The green business movement and wider climate community can win a culture war, but there is no need to give your opponent ammunition. Stop it.
It is true that in the longer term, once the crisis has passed, as it eventually must, some silver linings may materialise. But it is critical to remember this is no more than a possibility. It is in no way inevitable.
It is possible that the world will emerge from this crisis with a new found respect for long tail risks and Black Swan events, not to mention those scientists who have long warned that climate impacts could follow trajectories that are not dissimilar to the exponential graphs we are now all terrifyingly familiar with. But it is also possible that anti-science ideologues will be emboldened by their passage through such an intense crisis.
It is possible that nativist authoritarians will be drummed out of office by voters who are suddenly painfully aware of the interconnectedness of human society. But it is also possible that the misinformation and scapegoating that has provided the bedrock of Trumpism to date will place the blame for the pandemic on a virus that they are already attempting to give a national moniker.
It is possible that the coronavirus' likely source in the wildlife trade will spark a long overdue global crackdown on this benighted market and instil a global understanding of both our collective physical vulnerability and the urgent need to give natural ecosystems the space they require. But it is also possible that the impulse to reignite a global economy forced to pause will drive an extractive resource boom that fells yet more forests and degrades the natural world still further.
It is possible that the laissez faire, light touch, short termist political culture that has dominated many western economies for decades and has been evident in everything from underpowered climate policies to Boris Johnson's initial phased, voluntary approach to tackling the spread of coronavirus will give way to greater state intervention and the wider application of precautionary principles in the face of long term challenges. But it is also possible, and I am loath to even voice this thought, that a world given a taste of intensifying health and climate risks runs into the arms of wall-building, missile-toting strongmen.
It is possible the virus stalking the planet will allow everyone to recognise the common bonds that tie the generations together. But it is also possible that those millennials who have already lived through a decade of economic insecurity while being openly disparaged by too many of their elders will eventually ask why they are now being asked to sacrifice so much.
It is possible that the sudden surge in teleconferencing and homeworking highlights how an inordinate number of carbon-emitting business processes can be replaced with more efficient and productive alternatives. But it is also possible that after an enforced period of isolation companies will correlate home working with inevitable commercial underperformance and demand a return to business as usual on steroids.
Most important of all for the green economy, it is possible the economic stimulus that is already taking shape could put rocket boosters under the net zero transition, integrating government's top priorities to resolve the coronavirus crisis and the climate crisis at the same time. But it is also possible the stimulus will fixate on propping up 20th century carbon intensive infrastructure for another decade or so. The desire to return to a pre-coronavirus state, in every sense, will be all consuming. The silver linings may never come.
The closest corollary in recent history is the response to the financial crash of 2008. The conventional wisdom if that the opportunity to remake capitalism in the wake of the credit crunch was squandered. But that is not quite true.
Tesla was just the most high profile beneficiary of President Obama's clean tech flavoured loan guarantee programme. The White House's auto industry bailout came with strings attached that laid some of the foundations for an EV industry that is now on the cusp of mainstream adoption. Few countries adopted explicitly green stimulus plans, but plenty of governments used the opportunity to steer funding towards low carbon projects. In the UK, calls for a Green New Deal were resisted, but insulation grant programmes and the electricity market reform programme that helped drive down the cost of offshore wind projects were forged in the crucible of the post-Lehman Brothers crash.
It could even be argued the 11th hour multilateralism that averted the complete collapse of the global financial system enhanced the relationships and embedded the diplomatic channels that later gave birth to the Paris Agreement. The geopolitical elite learnt the value of co-operation in the face of complex risks.
However, ultimately the opportunity to remodel capitalism along sustainable lines was fumbled and the post-crash recovery triggered another decade of rising global emissions, soaring fossil fuel infrastructure investment, and record-breaking climate impacts.
Twelve years on, as the world readies its economic response to being blindsided by an even more severe crisis, the economics of climate action are far stronger than they were in 2008. Corporate and public support for bold climate policies has become the norm, as the reality of those escalating climate impacts has become clear and the cost of clean technologies has plummeted. The fundamentals that have driven green growth and clean tech investment in recent years are still strong. The case for a bright green stimulus is utterly compelling and is already being made loudly by the UN, the IEA, and a growing band of business and political leaders.
But, and I can't stress this enough, a much bleaker future is also possible. Clean energy investment will inevitably be curbed this year. COP26 could easily be postponed, dealing yet another blow to the Paris Agreement. Trump could yet get re-elected on a campaign that noxiously exploits the deaths of thousands for his own narrow ends. The pressure on governments to target much of the bailout on carbon intensive business models will be intense. The ideological impulses that would stop governments for asking for environmentally progressive reforms in return for the state's support will persist. And, when the recovery does start to motor, the same old suspects that underfunded the NHS and dismissed fears about the resilience of the UK's battered social contract will again sound the alarm over the deficit and argue growth can only be restored by slashing regulations and rolling back the state.
Nothing is certain. Like the decision on when to end public gatherings or the decision to stay home when you feel the slightest bit under the weather, the decision on how to shape the eventual recovery is a choice. A choice based on whether you are prepared to act in the interests of wider society or remain a slave to more short term, and arguably selfish, concerns. At this time, more than ever, we all need to do all we can to make the right choices.
One of the best pieces of advice when caught in a storm is to stay calm and keep your eye on the horizon. Only then do you maximise the chances of navigating your way through the hurricane and ensuring the silver linings materialise.