Special Issue 2 – Concomitant Crises

This article is contributed by Ian Myers ex-Chairman of Quantock Eco and currently a key member of its Executive.  He is a Senior Technical Advisor at the Environment Agency’s Head Office specialising in Water Quality and Environmental Management.  His academic background is also closely connected to Humanity’s relationship with the Planet, having graduated from North London University with BA (Hons) in Human Geography followed by the Diploma of the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management.  He has over 30 years’ experience in this field.

Concomitant Crises – The Environment & Covid
Will we Grasp the Opportunities or Will we Let Them Pass Us By?

Setting the scene…
It could be expected that most of us live in the present but we also live in the future. This can be simple like looking forward to the weekend or it can be a far more existential wondering about the planet’s future in 20 or 30 years.

For many, the coronavirus crisis has probably changed their vision of ‘the future’ substantially. At the start of the crisis, with empty supermarket shelves the ‘future’ focus was as basic as what to have for dinner, then it moved to trashed holiday plans, childrens’ education and now the longer-term economic impacts. Right now, few will have a firm vision of what the future holds when there are so many factors still at play.

However, the lockdown has provided a foretaste of one type of future that could emerge in a post coronavirus world. It could be cleaner, greener, more caring, less hectic, less competitive and driven by different values and thinking than the past. In the face of the pandemic governments have locked down society and our economy and along with it the impacts on the environment. These few short months have been an opportunity to ‘pause’ and finally escape from the relentless accelerating era of consumption that has swept us along for the last 30 years.

None of us can know the future for sure, but coronavirus has, at least now, provided a fork in the road we were on. 

As we start to emerge from this unprecedented event, will we wish to rush back to our old ways? Any return to normality is after all a return to the same old challenges – the climate and plastics crisis and general destruction of our planet – these problems have not gone away. Unless the virus is beaten, we may not have much choice. Or we might collectively wish to seek a new path.  

This paper discusses these issues and hopefully provides some food for thought for our forthcoming webinar. What difference has the lockdown made? What new habits may stick and what new opportunities do we now have? Have we really changed our thinking? With this background let us consider possible discussion prompts for our webinar by looking at:

  • Firstly, what are the short-term impacts from the lockdown?
  • Secondly, what are longer term impacts, how might world governments respond to avoid recession, how green will any economic stimulus be to alter consumption in the face of costs and debt burdens?
  • Thirdly, will there be less globalisation and consumption and would it benefit the planet?
  • Finally, will there be any impact on individual behaviour and attitudes – might we finally face up to the climate crisis or opt for economic growth at any price?

Not all the facts are known, so any firm assessment is impossible. We can only resort to exploring the possibilities of what might be the result of this historical world-wide ‘event’ that has changed the world we live in.

So what happened and what game are we now playing?
The global shutdown is a worldwide experiment that’s still raging on and the response from governments to this economic collapse is far from fully formed. Governments have borrowed heavily and will borrow yet more. There will be impacts from these debt burdens and capital flows on future generations. We don’t know the full extent to which the crisis will impact on our now fully globalised economy and associated worldwide environmental impacts. The risks of our extended ‘just in time’ supply chains that sustain our economy have now become very apparent. We might now diverge from this globalisation path but will that be a good thing for our planet? Will there be less international cooperation or more? Let us not forget human behaviour either – are we now helplessly hard wired into global consumption and growth?

Short term impacts…first half over – advantage environment?
Shutting down the world economy caused a decline of around 20-25% of GDP but judging the environmental effects from this decline are difficult. Estimates suggest a 20-30% drop for emissions of carbon and 50-60% for oxides of nitrogen worldwide. By mid-June any drop may have dwindled with cars back on roads and energy demand rising, although for some sectors reductions still stick – e.g. the 90% collapse in carbon emissions from aviation .

We used to think, (some still cling to the idea), that we had decoupled consumption from emissions but clearly the links stay strong. The reduced EU emissions since 1990 have just been externalised and were aided by static populations. Energy related emissions are now bouncing back and anyway have not been mirrored by agricultural or land use reductions. Greenhouse gas concentrations haven’t changed either having risen about 2ppm per year continually since 1990 during the ‘golden age’ of fossil fuels. The hope of meeting the Paris 1.5 0C temperature rise ambition remains an incredible challenge.

Harder to quantify will be the short-term impact on the natural world. There may be positives – reduced roadkill or better breeding success – but data is hard to come by. There is also less monitoring, enforcement of regulation. A reduction in eco-tourism will have benefits in sensitive areas but there’s less income for protection. Overall, it’s impossible to judge as there will be much variation across countries, species and habitats. And the goats no longer freely  roam in Llandudno.

The fall out on emerging environmental policy is another short-term impact with the complete loss of attention of governments. In mid-June Greener UK, a coalition of the UK’s largest environmental organisations, published its green policy risk tracker concluding there was a weakening across the board for all policy areas especially post Brexit.

2020, (remember?) was a critical ‘last chance’ year, it had such promise with the ‘Greta’ effect, Extinction Rebellion awareness raising and the climate youth movement building momentum for COP26. Now maybe action on the environment suddenly is less urgent with other coronavirus related priorities demanding attention. However lower demand has reduced energy prices that may in turn increase use and emissions. In addition, any attempt to start reducing fossil fuel use may now be resisted.

We also know the coronavirus has reduced efforts on plastics. In the UK we have relied on home deliveries in plastic bags.  The world now uses a staggering 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves every month and much PEE is incinerated adding to emissions with plenty is also just thrown away. In Europe, the Mediterranean floor is littered with billions of face masks and gloves. Score environment just 1:0 ahead on emission reductions and clinging on but the political process has taken a knock and hobbled off at half time…

Second half begins…
Will the pandemic have any permanent reductions of world emissions and lead to positive effective policy changes? Perhaps our best hope will stem from the severe drop in economic activity and associated emissions. The IMF predicted a fall was inevitable. Oil prices were on the decline in 2019 anticipating downward pressure from decarbonisation and overproduction. However this may be blunted by government support for car production coupled with increased use as society shuns public transport and buys more SUVs.

It’s unknown how influential the economic response by governments will be and whether policies will have environmental consequences. Monetary and Quantitative Easing (QE), lower interest rates, financial stimuli and particularly increased government spending are all designed to promote growth. Even if we get a new green deal, it seems unlikely to be substantially transformative. 

Monetary and QE episodes over the last twenty years have tended to inflate an asset price bubble which may now deflate in the pandemic. The bubble has raised land prices and so increased agricultural activity and environmental impacts. Across the economy, low interest rates reduce the costs of debt and incentives to save and combined, increase consumption, emissions and environmental damage. If world governments now take monetary easing further the same outcomes will continue. Lower interest rates and QE also reduce capital costs so encourage investment. Some investment will be directed toward renewables and low carbon technology, which is good, but investment can also lead to the further exploitation of fossil fuels and yet more consumption. In conclusion the key factor is how or whether government policy steers investment towards transformative environmental outcomes. Sadly, so far, there is little sign of that happening at any significant scale. Bear in the political process has taken a knock.

Most governments in the EU, China and the US have increased fiscal stimuli in response to the crisis. Some stimulus, via increased expenditure, is inevitable with falls in tax receipts coinciding with the additional societal costs like from unemployment. However, rather than investment, much stimulus aims to maintain or prompt consumption like the UK’s ‘Eat out to help out’ scheme. The environmental impacts that flow from this type of stimulus depend on how it fuels demand for energy, transport and other emissions from the consumption of food, timber, steel, concrete, etc.

The extent to which any government investment and stimulus is ‘green’ could be very significant. People argue governments should invest in renewable but if it’s already equal or cheaper than fossil fuels then that’s unnecessary as it would occur anyway.  If, however, renewables aren’t actually cheaper then supporting the difference makes sense although a better approach would be to tax carbon. Unfortunately, the slump in economic activity has upset the balance by reducing the cost of fossil fuel. Unfortunately, such price reductions reduce supply chain costs, make things cheaper and stimulate consumption, emissions and environmental impacts. It seems financial stimuli generally leads to the same or more levels of consumption unless directed by very firm environmental policy.

When considering the merits of any investment, we need to factor in potential returns as well as spends. The case for ‘green’ investment isn’t clear, it might not compete economically, nor as directly with investment in things like roads, house building or even health expenditure. That said, investing in broadband communications also offers excellent environmental returns alongside economic and societal benefits. It’s argued ‘green’ investment will stimulate the economy and over time, pay for itself. However, most conventional growth leads to more consumption, and more impacts so maybe regulation is a cheaper option.

The scale of any green investment given the broader society and economy will surely be small anyway. The UK government announced plans for 2500 electric charge points and a £250M active travel fund with hints of a bigger programme ahead. However, in comparison to the £27bn spend on the road network, such sustainable travel investments shrink. Further any investment will be at the cost of savings or debt repayment and without any saving the investment can’t be paid for over the longer term.

So in summary, the more we spend the less we save. We cannot afford to spend unless we save something to pay the spending. We cannot currently spend without environmental impacts. It’s hard to break out of this cycle but maybe green investment should be considered on a stand-alone basis, not as a stimulus in a recession. Regardless, whatever the arguments for green investments, post-lockdown, there are more pressing claims on national budgets. These claims maybe more economically attractive, appeal to voters, be lobbied for and may well have more political priority than the environment. To conclude, green investments are not the sole component of a sustainable long-term growth strategy nor are they likely to be large enough even if they were and sadly they may not happen.

To answer our second question…team new planet is under pressure as old team equalises early in the second half…

All to play for – it’s a world cup final after all!
So what about the link between globalised trade and the destruction of the environment – our third question? The economic growth of China, India, Brazil and South East Asia over the last 30 years has undoubtedly caused massive environmental damage. China burnt half the world’s coal in 2019 (International Energy Authority) and spread this economic expansion across the planet via its Belt and Road Initiative opening up natural areas. How China responds to the Coronavirus is, therefore, very significant. China supplies many goods to US and EU markets displacing the West’s home-grown production and carbon emissions.

Western companies have benefitted from cheaper labour, then cheaper outsourced production and finally cheaper imported products paid for by debt raised by lending from China.

This has led to globalisation and extended our supply chains which are now revealed to be very fragile as illustrated by the UKs own efforts to recently obtain inter alia face masks. Will this lead to cleaner home production and less emissions associated with global transport and mass tourism?  It is worth noting that even before the virus struck growth of world trade was slowing and new technology already offered prospects for greener growth.

How much cleaner would domestic production actually be even if it was possible or cost effective to achieve?  Has globalisation had its day anyway? The World Trade Organisation is not functioning well, and the political rise of the nation state might reduce political support for world-wide bodies. Any prolonged impact of the coronavirus may prevent a quick bounce back for aviation or tourism. These sectors however helped broadened horizons over many years and so stimulated global cooperation and one ‘worldism’. 

This could mean a more protectionist approach to trade that may start to account more for environmental costs. The EU’s proposed border carbon tax is one example that will address the competitive advantage China and exporting nations have. If this trading playing field is levelled and coupled with emission reduction commitments then the US may sign up again to the Paris Agreement. This would surely be far more positive for the climate even with on-going globalisation. To counter this there are other players such as farming groups who will lobby governments to protect their interests. Any agreements will take time and even before the pandemic there were protracted trade negotiations between the US and China, the UK and the EU and the UK and the US amongst others.

Any of these outcomes may not necessarily lead to environmental benefits equally – there could be sustained global trading with less carbon emissions but continued global environmental impacts as the worlds’ resources continue to be exploited. The answer to our third question is still being worked through but China’s recent announcements on peak carbon by 2030 look very significant – a key player. The game might go to extra time…

And what’s the mood of the crowd?
So, what about any permanent behavioural shifts? During the lockdown period many observed significant changes in society’s behaviour. Some now think this will lead to different personal and political choices in future and finally increase our willingness to address the environmental threats we face. Few can argue that the sheer shock of the lockdown has been massive and felt by almost everyone. In many places’ society was confined to home and often crowded into ‘risky’ urban areas. People have missed the natural world but haven’t missed the daily commute and frantic lifestyles as much enjoying the cleaner air and quieter streets. There has also been much short-term anxiety about COVID-19 risks, food supplies and health now added to with longer term stresses of job insecurity.

All this may make people more risk-averse, increase short-termism and individualistic consumption. People may now save more and spend less, although that could also include paying for anything ‘environmental’ as well. The threat or reality of future tax rises is likely to eat into any consumer confidence sooner or later. So, there seems to be a balance between the change and increased value of nature that society now has, set against the reduced capacity to actually protect it caused in part by economic necessity.

The virus is global of course, and one key effect is that it’s made our inter-connectedness so apparent. This may make people more minded to support global actions and agreements like at the delayed COP26. Equally though, people may now be more nationalistic and even less community orientated having lived with less social interaction. There is certainly no evidence yet of a great shift in human nature or culture.

Regardless of what people may think and feel, our environmental problems are now extremely urgent. There is increasing awareness of our situation at all levels of society across the planet.

The recently published progress report on the UK’s 25 year environment plan paints a gloomy picture and there are many others listing the dire situation we now face. One example is a report published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, that outlines how rising temperatures are altering the planet and human life.

It confirms – along with NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the UK Met Office – that the past decade was the hottest ever recorded, with 2019 either the second or third warmest year. Every decade since 1980 has been warmer than the preceding one and this global temperature rise is gathering pace. People across the world are experiencing this reality.

We simply cannot wait for any broader changes in societal opinion to work through to changes in [consumptive] activity even if alternatives were readily available – and they don’t always seem to be. One positive exception though might be cycling – right now the demand for bikes and growth in other two wheeled transport growth looks strong. To answer our last question – half the crowd are nervous but feeling a bit more positive … moods can change though and the game is not over.

We can’t stand a penalty shoot-out – planet earth can win and has to.
To conclude, the coronavirus and this period of human history will be studied and discussed for years. It may even be the first of many pandemics or viruses and something we learn to live with. There have been short term environmental gains from mostly transport emissions, reduced air pollution and congestion but its hard to believe these gains will last especially with the push of fiscal stimuli. The linkage between economic activity and carbon emissions is now very clear. The myth that we can both reduce impacts and grow cleanly is surely dispelled and the circular economy is embryonic.

Yet although the impacts of the pandemic are not environmentally benign, they should not distract from the economic arguments in favour of tackling climate change and biodiversity loss – these remain. The economic case for improving air quality, for addressing marine pollution, stopping coal burning and peat losses is strong, as is the case for the electrification of transport. A report, from the New Nature Economy project, concluded that a nature-first approach could create 400 million jobs and £8 trillion in business value annually by 2030. In contrast, the report warns that a return to business-as-usual, threatens half of global GDP.

Many continue to argue these points including the Climate Change Committee who recently submitted their recommendations for a recovery package to Ministers and devolved governments. These ideas aren’t ground-breaking like ‘Ensuring that the recovery does not lock-in greenhouse gas emissions or increased risk’ but such wisdom is not being acted upon.

Many solutions are ready to go or entirely realistic – renewable energy accounted for almost half of the UK’s electricity generation between January and March this year with record breaking stretches without burning coal. We can actually do this and we should.

The result does look predictable but it’s not inevitable and there is hope…
Overall, the economic and environmental facts have only been marginally changed by the virus. While these changes are not sufficient to make many change their minds, they should at least recalibrate any answers. It’s clear the scale of technological progress and change to reduce emissions in the near future is vast. We also need to protect the natural world, especially the rain forests, whilst accommodating billions more. Unfortunately, it seems that macroeconomic policies will focus on consumption more than anything else. This will benefit current generations disproportionality widening inter-generational inequality. It is hard to be very optimistic, but maybe the virus has just bought us a little time and space.

Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. 50 years ago it was set on 31 December, last year it was July 29 and the coronavirus has pushed this back to 22 August. So, it seems that there are positives like real transport emission reductions and the rapid adoption of digital communication – it just may lead us somewhere.

It’s been proved governments can force massive change, spend trillions overnight and most of us will make sacrifices when truly necessary. There is now, at least, an on-going debate about our type of future. There remains so many good arguments for addressing our greatest threat of climate change that dwarfs anything that the virus can do. If governments now take us back to the pre-coronavirus days it’s a missed opportunity and the climate won’t thank us. In short, as life gets back to normal, we must not just simply go back to normal.

We need to remember that humans don’t always act rationally in the face of the facts but driven by basic human desires and needs. In reality, the power structure of our economy and the critical decisions that must now be taken are in the hands of an elite but ‘human’ few. The ways in which political power is exercised and influenced by the many can still be decisive – it really has to be.

Lately, at least in the UK, political communication seems to have become distilled down to three-word slogans – ‘Get Brexit Done’ or ‘Stay at Home’. Maybe our big risk as we return to ‘Business As Usual’, is the ‘Misinformed Passive Public’ get ‘Blinded Distracted and Gaslighted’ to ‘Ignore, Forget and Overlook’. It is now up to us all who know and care to make sure that doesn’t happen.

The Royal Society was set up under a slogan that stated its aim of using the power of nature to enhance humankind. Now we need to use the power of humankind to enhance nature. It is now up to us all who know and care to make sure that does happen instead.

The challenge of COVID-19 has only reinforced the fact that, for the goals to be met, everyone needs to do their part: governments, the private sector, civil society, and the general public.

Quantock Eco plays its part to by helping us ‘Build Sustainable Lifestyles’, its own three-word slogan.

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