The global pandemic of 2020 has meant massive changes to millions of people around the world. But as we look to adjust to life in the ‘new normal’, are there lessons to learn in how we can ‘build back better’? With less than a year to go until the postponed COP26, Professor Alice Larkin from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research gives her recommendations as to how we can tackle both the recovery from COVID-19 and the climate change crisis. (This blog was originally recorded as part of COVID Catalyst, a series which saw experts from across The University of Manchester come together to identify the new challenges and innovation needed to build back better following the pandemic.)
- The global pandemic has shown us that change can happen very quickly in response to an emergency.
- The response to the COVID-19 crisis can also be used to help address the ongoing climate emergency.
- Analysis of global emissions during the spring lockdowns reveals an average global reduction of 17%. But while our lives were temporarily transformed, our reliance on fossil fuels remains.
- Clever investment now, at this pivotal point that has been brought about not only by COVID-19, but also the underlying attention on the climate emergency from the climate movement, could positively transform systems and society away from fossil fuels, while simultaneously improving employment, equality and human well-being.
We’ve learnt two important lessons so far from the pandemic. The first is that our priorities can shift dramatically to tackle an emergency. The second is that change can take place quickly.
I’d like to share how these observations can be harnessed to tackle the climate emergency because, with everything going on in the world right now, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that we’re in one.
I’ve spent the last 18 years trying to understand the scale of the climate emergency and how our energy systems should transform to minimise carbon emissions. ‘Energy systems’ can sound rather technical but what I mean is how you and I use energy every day. What we use it for, when we use it, how much we use and where it comes from.
The climate emergency we’re facing is so great that mitigating the damage we are doing now, and the damage that will be done in future, requires much more than just increasing the amount of renewable electricity on our National Grid. We need to consider all the ways that we consume energy: from travelling to heating our homes, cooking to the industrial manufacture of goods; and critically, we need to do this quickly.
This is why it’s not just about technology. We know that a wide variety of technical solutions exist for cutting CO2 emissions, but some will take decades to be sufficiently widespread to make the difference that is actually needed in the next five or ten years. Coming from an physical sciences background and spending most of my career working with engineers and social scientists, I know that modelling theoretically how an idealised technology such as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage might cut CO2, is very different to the more complicated process of widescale and rapid infrastructure deployment. I’m thinking of things like the construction of new nuclear power stations; retrofitting alternative technologies for heating every single UK home; designing and deploying an extensive network of electric vehicles charging points; and perhaps most importantly in the current debate – the large scale roll-out of new CO2 removal technologies.
That’s why it matters how much energy we consume. If we can consume less, then we won’t need to transform as much high carbon infrastructure – but this is rarely the focus of CO2 mitigation discussions.
Consuming less energy has previously taken a back seat in the policy debates to decarbonising our energy supply. One of the reasons for this is that it requires changes to individual and collective behaviour, attitudes and expectations; aspects that are seemingly more politically sensitive than a shift in technology.
For example, I’ve worked for years on cutting the CO2 from air travel but the appetite for reducing flights, or even just curbing growth rates, has been minimal despite the widespread understanding that decarbonising aviation will take longer than the time we have to meet our Paris Climate Agreement objectives.
Yet consumption shifts can be implemented now. For example, research from The University of Manchester in June of this year analysed shipping emissions and the impact policy interventions could have when applied to existing vessels. Our research revealed that without making changes to energy consumption now, by adopting slower speeds or retrofitting ships with energy saving measures such as modern sails, the shipping sector will be unable to meet Paris targets, even assuming new vessels are able to run on zero-carbon fuels from 2030. Essentially, our research showed that it is vital to apply measures to decarbonise shipping within existing infrastructures to achieve milestone reductions while, simultaneously, developing new transformative technologies.
So, with just under twelve months until COP26 begins, what have we learnt from our response to COVID-19 to inform how we can respond to the climate change crisis? How can we equip our Government to deliver the UK’s defining action on climate change?
We’ve learnt that people can work and live differently. We can accept less commuting, less flying, less buying material goods; all energy consuming activities. We’ve accepted these changes because we know that there is a threat to human society.
We now need to apply that learning to our twin crises. Lockdown has shown that when leaders unite in recognition of a shared crisis, we adapt. This indicates that if the same leadership approach was taken to the climate emergency, we would accept changes that specifically reduce energy consumption, and supports the huge investment required in low-carbon infrastructure.
We’ve also learnt that we need more than a temporary change in our levels of energy consumption to combat climate change. Analysis of global emissions during the spring lockdowns reveals an average global reduction of 17%. However, this analysis also shows that even if some restrictions remain in place to the end of 2020, as they are likely to, the overall reduction will be much less. This indicates that while our lives were temporarily transformed, our reliance on fossil fuels remains. To ‘build back better’ we need structural and societal change that is sustained, far-reaching, and increased to meaningfully tackle the climate emergency.
To achieve this, we need significant investment. This brings me to a third matter we’ve learnt: we know that when the crisis is big enough, investment can be found. We now need investment to reflect the scale of the climate crisis. We need decision makers to direct investment, that we know can be made available, to drive rapid and radical regional and national interventions.
Clever investment now, at this crucial pivot point that has been brought about not only by COVID-19, but also the underlying attention on the climate emergency from the climate movement, could positively transform systems and society away from fossil fuels, whilst simultaneously improving employment, equality and human well-being. To support climate change goals we will need to retrofit our entire housing stock which in turn helps to address fuel poverty, re-purpose our roads for cycling and walking – improving our air quality, and accelerate our renewable energy roll-out. All these green projects create more jobs, while delivering short term returns for society that avoid long-term damage that will come at a high cost.
Now is the time to ‘green’ society and pursue a future that considers local prosperity, jobs, resilience and equality as we reassemble our daily lives.
Not only has COVID-19 given us lessons that we can learn from, but it has also created a flux in our everyday routines. We need decision makers to take advantage of this flux to develop policies that can lead to sustained but acceptable reductions in energy consumption – focusing on delivering change in the near term.
If we don’t take advantage of this moment in time where we have demonstrated that society can accept deep change, then we will pass up our opportunity of a lifetime to help future generations.