A blog by Professor James Curran MBE, Chair of the James Hutton Institute and Honorary Fellow of Scottish Environment LINK.
As I write this, the world-wide battle against Covid-19 is underway. In every country, Governments are taking unprecedented action and mobilising enormous financial resources. In the UK there are the first signs of a reduction in hospitalisations and, hopefully, the appalling rate of fatalities will soon decline.
The emergency arose, at least partly, both due to a lack of preparation, even though a pandemic was recognised many years ago as a likely global threat (eg see Fig1 of the World Economic Forum Global Risks 2015 report), and due to a lack of resilience in public and private services. National governments have an over-riding responsibility to provide security for their citizens and every unnecessary fatality, due to poor preparation, is a great sadness and also an inexcusable failure.
We have been witnessing that governments, in extreme circumstances, can take extraordinary powers and have the ability to embrace innovation and take decisions at unprecedented speed. We have also seen that market-based solutions have provided little or no protection to citizens. These lessons must be learnt.
As we turn around the crisis and look towards the exit strategy, then there should be demands for the recovery packages to create a world that is better equipped to respond to such emergencies. We should not tolerate a repeat of the 2008 financial crash, the aftermath of which fundamentally changed very little. It is unacceptable to have an economy which can be facing ruin within a few weeks of the emergence of a new virus. The recovery pathway, this time, will set the direction for decades to come. That recovery may well, and hopefully will, be quite rapid with suggestions that pre-Covid GDP may be attained as early as 2021/22. So, thought must be given to the future.
The current world-wide financial support packages and future stimulus packages are already, and most certainly will, far exceed those mobilised in 2008. Those packages must mainstream sustainability and there is likely to be increasing demand for them to focus significantly on social care, social support and health resilience.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide an existing model on which to shape the recovery and the European Commission, at the end of 2019, also released it thoughts on a European Green Deal, emphasising the need for a set of deeply transformative policies and a global response. Although specifically targeting the climate and ecosystem emergencies, the proposals set out “to protect the health and wellbeing of citizens from environment-related risks and impacts”. With suggestions that Covid-19 emerged as a result of poor wildlife regulation in China, this European document is certainly well-timed.
In Scottish terms, the proposals align well with our aspirations for inclusive and sustainable economic growth. It is time to create smarter, climate-proofed infrastructure, develop regenerative agriculture, mainstream multi-modal public transport, reform taxation to reflect externalities, and to pursue a low-resource circular economy – all with much increased ambition. This time round, disaster recovery must treat people as part of the solution, and not as an aspect to be managed. Unlike 2008, this emergency really has been shared; the virus has attacked right around the world and attacked both rich and poor. Most of us have relied very heavily on the commitment of service-providers, previously marginalised and often described as low-skill, and certainly low pay. It is to be hoped that greater degrees of solidarity may emerge.
You would expect me to argue that the combined climate and nature emergency is, and most certainly will become, a challenge that will dwarf even that presented by Covid-19. It has been declared an “emergency” by many authorities and yet the actual response has been insignificant compared to that marshalled against the Coronavirus. The scale of the climate challenge is considerable. For example, a drop of 10% in global GDP in 2020, with a return towards normal in 2021, probably only gives us an extra 3 weeks over the next 30 years to meet the necessary emissions targets. See Figure 1 here for more detail.
Climate change demands global co-operation; it demands behaviour change; it demands public and private investment. However, it doesn’t have the immediacy of the pandemic and it hasn’t established a shared emotion as a powerful driver for change – at least not yet.
So, there will be a struggle to get voices heard for a new approach in amongst the demands, by many and varied interests, for our society and economy to be rebuilt rapidly and on the lines of the status quo. Partnerships like LINK, which take the longer view, should be prepared to shout loudly to be heard above the tumult.
We must marshal the arguments and appeal to the post-Covid sentiment. We need a country and an economy that is prepared for shocks in the future and that protects its citizens and lifestyles. Indeed, Core Cities UK, a partnership of the UK’s major cities outside London, has suggested this is the time for “reimagining the future of cities.”
Scotland has a broad-based economy and should be well-placed to emerge stronger and more resilient. We have strengths in technology and innovation, in renewable energies, in food & drink, and in the financial sector, particularly insurance. Very low interest rates offer opportunities for public and private investment on an unprecedented scale to rebuild our social and environmental fabric.
Many experts, including LINK, continue to prepare the pathway to a better future and to ensure we have the information which allows us to be ready for the impacts of climate change, and indeed to seize some of the opportunities that will be presented. It will be more important than ever to create a dedicated national green recovery package that will support jobs and livelihoods that will endure, in renewable technologies and in the circular economy. These will be jobs that are more locally based and that add greater value along the supply and delivery chains. They are jobs that will not continue to undermine and exploit our environment and the life support systems provided by nature. Indeed, we must invest in nature-based solutions and green infrastructure, and improved access to life-enhancing natural environments, on a scale and in extent not seen before. The demands of climate change mitigation and adaptation must be addressed simultaneously. We can create a better, socially more just, more economically robust, and a happier and healthier place to live, here in Scotland.
Scientists predicted a global pandemic. It appeared on global risk registers. But we weren’t ready.
Scientists predict a climate and nature emergency. It appears on risk registers. This time we must prepare.