Let’s go back to January 2020 – a mere three months ago. We were fresh out of a General Election with a Government riding high on a strong parliamentary majority, poised to unleash spending and ‘level-up’ the economy. Boris even managed to get Brexit done.
2019 had been the year of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg. Caring about climate change beyond turning off the taps when you bush your teeth was no longer relegated as an issue for Greenpeace and student tree-huggers, but a global mainstream political priority.
2020 was supposed to be the year that the UK hosted the UN Climate Change Summit COP26. As the first country to entrench emission limits and the ambition to reach net zero by 2050 in law, this was the time to the UK prove itself a world leader.
Yet within 3 months, 1 in 5 people worldwide were under lockdown as national governments went to battle against a new crisis – the coronavirus pandemic.
Across Government there has been an urgent re-set of departmental priorities, with civil servants fielded into the national coronavirus effort, policy consultations extended, and workstreams and strategies delayed. And now the UK and UN have postponed COP26 until 2021.
The Government instead must weigh up whether our economy can cope with increasingly ambitious emissions targets in the face of massive global financial upheaval.
The Committee on Climate Change – the Government’s climate change advisers – were due to announce their advice on the 6th Carbon Budget (cap on emissions) in September. Instead, this has been delayed to the end of the year and the Committee’s annual report to Parliament on the UK’s progress on emissions will heavily focus on supporting a resilient recovery following the pandemic.
To put this into context – the Government has extended its consultation on bringing forward the ban on petrol and diesel cars from 2040 to 2035. On the face of it this may not seem like much. Yet while Ministers originally wanted to see if they could do even better than 2035, they are now forced to re-evaluate whether the industry will even be able to cope with 2035 given the massive financial toll it’s under.
So will the need to prioritise ‘resilience’ dispel the sense of urgency to tackle the climate emergency? Does the battle against one crisis mean sacrificing (or postponing) the battle against the other?
One positive news story that has surfaced is the impact of the lockdown on the environment. Daily EU emissions have fallen by 58%. Reduced Chinese coal burning in February saved annual emissions equal to that of a small European country. Views of the Himalayas not seen for 200 years from parts of India are sweeping social media. Birds can be heard chirping in Central London.
Of course, this is unlikely to outlive the lockdown and as the world’s towns, cities and borders open again, climate change will remain a real threat. Some have speculated that the glimpse into a cleaner future will spark the public and political awakening needed to spur on the fight against rising emissions.
So for now, tackling the climate emergency has fallen into second place. However, this does not necessarily have to be a distant second place.
As national governments cautiously begin to re-open their economies, the world’s ability to get control of the pandemic – and soon – will undoubtably effect our ability to be more ambitious in the pursuit of net zero.