Everyone knows. Before coronavirus, we lived in an economic system that plainly ignored the costs of pollution, mass extinction and global warming. A system that showed little or no ability to adjust. Which rewarded the CEOs of large polluting companies with millions in bonuses, while billions of people could barely make ends meet.
A system which put money before people.
The coronavirus crisis has been a disaster in almost every respect, but it gave us a brief opening: the chance to overthrow this unfair economic system and replace it with a fair, viable alternative.
For a moment during the crisis, the essential value of health and quality healthcare was made vivid. Our connectedness to nature and to each other was undisputed. The air was cleaner and the whole economy was put on pause.
We had a millisecond to think before we hit play again.
What did we do in that instant? Mostly we talked about whether we could go on holiday this year, and if it was okay for people to go to the beach again.
Meanwhile, governments were busy saving the old economy. Tax evaders, big polluters and airlines were kept afloat. The US fossil fuel industry raked in at least three billion dollars in Covid-19 aid. An inventory of bailouts compiled by Bloomberg found that by the end of May, governments across the world pumped about $12 trillion into the post-coronavirus recovery. Of that just about $18 billion was earmarked for green sectors. That’s 0.15%.
This recovery is a dead end
So it’s no surprise that global CO2 emissions are back almost at their old levels. China’s recovery is so dirty that air pollution and CO2 emissions were higher in May, compared to the previous year. Air quality in European cities is just as filthy as it was before the crisis – back to the "normal" level that causes the premature deaths of nearly half a million Europeans each year. Almost as many as have already died worldwide, so far, from Covid-19.
In other respects, too, the system is behaving entirely "normal" again.
While tens of millions of people have been or are threatened with acute famine by corona, and hundreds of millions have lost their jobs, the richest billionaires still managed to get much, much richer during this crisis. The unsustainability of this globalised capitalism has seldom been so visible.
And make no mistake. The outcome of this so-called "recovery" is a dead end. It will make inequality worse and damage the climate even more; it will lead us to a world with more misery and conflict, which are the favoured and fertile breeding grounds for xenophobic populists and authoritarian leaders who don’t give a damn about democracy or the rights of minorities and refugees. This is a brutal world with a soul-destroying lack of humanity.
Has the moment already passed? Is there anything else we can do? Of course there is. The economic recovery is ongoing; more government interventions are coming. Now is the time to make sure they are in the public interest.
The International Energy Agency has urged governments to invest a trillion dollars over the next three years to scale up sustainable technologies such as solar energy, electric cars and high-speed rail lines, modernise power grids, insulate buildings and accelerate development of batteries, hydrogen and small nuclear reactors.
In return for that trillion dollar investment – equivalent to 0.7% of global GDP – we would recover an estimated 1.1% in economic growth. Over the next three years, this would create three million new jobs and save another six million. The IEA tells us that it is now possible to “simultaneously spur economic growth, create millions of jobs and put emissions into structural decline”.
For every million dollars invested in renovation of the housing stock and sustainable construction, the IEA predicts opportunities for nine to 30 new jobs. Households’ energy bills would plummet, while living conditions would improve. In low-income countries, “nearly 270 million people would gain access to electricity”.
Tackling climate change is much cheaper than letting it happen
Now is the moment to act on the fact that we cannot negotiate with the climate. The atmosphere is the collective memory of our cumulative emissions: it does not forget. We have less then 10 years to cut global emissions by half if we want even a 50-50 chance of hitting the Paris climate target of 1.5C warming.
And the price? What about costs? Well, climate damage is already costing the world economy tens of billions a year, and the bill will only go up as emissions rise. One analysis after another shows that tackling climate change is much cheaper than letting it happen. This is no time for austerity. Now is the time for massive investment.
Let’s be honest: not all sectors can survive the coming transition. Fossil fuels, the oil and gas industry, will have to go. It’s safer to nationalise the oil companies and to dismantle them step by step in line with climate targets, than to wait and watch them collapse under low prices and increased competition from renewables: to choose inaction now means risking a full-on financial crisis.
Other sectors will shrink too, and people will lose their jobs. But there are now countless good ideas on how to fix that.
Employment-intensive projects for restoration of nature and renovation of the building stock are a good start. A basic income or minimum income guarantee could help too, following the example already set by Spain. Calls for a more entrepreneurial state and for tackling tax evasion are welcome. So yes, it is possible to address the climate crisis while making our economic system fairer and healthier.
Let citizens decide – that’s you
The only real question remaining is how to make sure this kind of change takes root. How can we compel elected politicians to make the right choices? It’s easy to be enraged by your government’s support for the status quo; it’s harder to make your voice heard and see protest translated into actual policies.
But here, too, new possibilities are emerging.
In France, for example, a citizens’ assembly appointed from a representative sample of the French population has formulated 149 proposals to lower emissions by 40% by 2030 “in a spirit of social justice”.
President Macron, who tasked the panel with this work after pressure from environmentalists and the gilets jaunes, has vowed to turn almost all of their proposals into law. His government has freed up €15 billion to fund the citizens’ proposals. Macron also pledged a national referendum to test the panel’s opinion on a lower maximum speed, ecocide law and higher taxes – three of the more controversial outcomes of the assembly.
A deliberative democracy which involves citizens, Macron announced on June 29, “is not opposed to parliamentary democracy, but complements and enriches it”.
He is right. In the UK, too, a Climate Assembly of 108 citizens started work last January on a remit assigned by the House of Commons. Its work was delayed by the coronavirus, but the citizens’ group has completed its deliberations and will table proposals in September. Will anyone pay attention? Will the silent majority in the UK make sure that parliament and the cabinet cannot ignore what the people have proposed?
Those questions should be on everybody’s mind. As we head into the summer holidays, let’s make some time in our hammocks to think about other ways that each of us can find to influence the recovery from Covid-19. And I’m not just talking about national policies. There have been successful citizen panels on climate action in the Polish city of Gdansk, in Denmark’s capital Copenhagen, and in the Canadian city of Toronto. What about where you live? Can you help kickstart such a process? Is it already underway?
Now is the time to be conscious and involved. For our own sake and that of all future generations, we must abandon "normal" – and forego forever the temptation to revive the fossil-fuelled status quo.
You can read more about our future on a hot earth in my book How Are We Going To Explain This? available from Profile Books (UK) now and from Scribner (US) in November