On May Day 2019, Labour led Parliament in declaring a climate and environmental emergency: a declaration that took place amid the blossoming of a global movement of school students and Extinction Rebellion demanding action to ensure the planet is inhabitable for younger generations. Yet 2020 has seen action on climate once again side-lined. With Covid-19 appearing to represent a more immediate threat to life, and coping with the pandemic consuming the energy of policy-makers, the sense of urgency built up over the preceding year has been lost and opportunities for coordinated action – such as the COP26 and 15th Biodiversity COP – postponed.
While most eyes have been on the pandemic, the climate crisis has continued to rage. From huge wildfires in California to the extraordinary heatwave that gripped Siberia in the first half of 2020 – something experts said would have been impossible without human-induced climate change – the consequences of the climate emergency do not just threaten our future, they are happening right now.
The publication of a United Nations Report in September provided a salutary warning that delaying action on climate while we deal with the pandemic is simply not an option. Perhaps most notable was its finding that, despite significant but temporary drops in emissions resulting from global lockdowns, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have continued to rise, reaching record levels this year. Just as worryingly, 2016-2020 are set to be the warmest five years on record.
We desperately need to refocus our efforts on the climate emergency, but it would be wrong to think of the pandemic as merely a distraction. In both their causes and the actions they demand of us, Coronavirus and the climate catastrophe are intimately related.
Climate change is the result of excess burning of fossil fuels, destruction of forestry and intensive farming of livestock. Covid-19 is thought to have originated in a wildlife market, drawing attention to the role of the global animal trade in driving extinction and spreading disease. Both are the result of the degradation of natural ecosystems caused by humans’ excessive exploitation of our environment and its natural resources.
Both crises have also been exacerbated by socioeconomic systems that put profit before people and act as a barrier to collective action. Just as powerful vested interests in the fossil fuel industry have repeatedly blocked decisive action on climate change, so the rush to get people back to work to save the “Pret economy” after lockdown saw the public health needs of society as a whole subordinated to the economic interests of a small group – in this case commercial city-centre landlords.
Repeatedly during the pandemic we seen an over-reliance on the private sector – from the outsourcing of PPE supply chains to Serco’s disastrous management of test and trace – and too much emphasis on individual responsibility over collective action, with the absence of an adequate social safety net forcing people to choose between following government guidance on self-isolation and being able to put food on the table. This mirrors the climate crisis where faith has been placed in market-based solutions such as carbon trading and individual lifestyle changes such as green energy tariffs that have failed to deliver change at the scale or pace needed.
And in both crises we see a widespread acceptance that the poorest, marginalised and most vulnerable will be worst hit. Black and minority ethnic communities in Britain have been shown to be disproportionately at risk from the health impacts of Covid and climate change due to low incomes and poor housing. Beyond Britain, it is developing countries who are at the highest risk of climate-induced extreme weather events and natural disasters: the same countries now look set to be excluded from Covid vaccinations by their prohibitive cost and manufacturers’ refusal – staunchly defended by wealthy countries – to allow generic production.
But if the character of the Covid and climate crises have much in common, they are also united by possibilities contained in their resolution – if we get it right. The economic fall-out from the pandemic has exposed an economy that is failing to meet basic needs and the climate catastrophe requires far-reaching economic change. Aligning our responses to both crises presents an unmissable opportunity to rebuild our economy on a more sustainable and equitable basis.
Millions have lost incomes and work as a result of successive lockdowns. The burgeoning unemployment crisis threatens to compound longer-running economic problems such as insecure work, regional inequalities and a dominant financial sector. Against this backdrop, an economy-wide plan to drive up living standards, redistribute economic power and guarantee good, unionised jobs in every part of the country has never been more urgent.
The last Labour manifesto set out some of the most radical and advanced plans to decarbonise and restructure the economy to make it radically fairer, more sustainable and more democratic developed anywhere in the world. It set an ambitious target to achieve the overwhelming majority of emissions reductions by 2030 backed up by credible plans to get there, including:
- Large-scale public investment in the infrastructure and industries that will
provide the foundation of a green transition, with an active state making
sure that investment happens on scale and pace needed, and in the right
- Detailed plans for investing in new and existing industries, developing
supply chains and creating jobs in every region, making sure that no part of
the country is left behind by the Green Industrial Revolution.
- A commitment to work in partnership with workers and their trade unions in
every sector, so that they lead the transition in their industry, and a
guarantee to workers that every job created will be well paid, secure and
- Multiple levels of public ownership, from community to the national level,
giving everyone a stake and a say in the new economy, allowing strategic
direction of the transition and making sure everyone shares in the benefits
instead of repeating the mistakes made with North Sea Oil by allowing them
to be privatised for the benefit of the few.
- Placing international cooperation and justice at the heart of the
transition, with specific commitments including technological transfer to
less developed countries and an end to Britain’s offshoring of its emissions
Over the coming year, the Peace and Justice Project will build on these plans by adapting them for the post-Covid recovery and campaigning to make them a reality. This will include:
- Looking at how the investment needed for transition can tackle the
unemployment crisis by providing the basis for a Jobs and Income Guarantee
for all who need it.
- Broadening the social safety net by placing rights to energy, water and
other necessities at the heart of a Green New Deal, not just in the UK but
- Considering the crucial role for public service resilience and public health
systems in climate adaptation and developing proposals to strengthen both.
Tackling the climate and environmental emergency is not just a scientific necessity, it is also a matter of justice, especially for those set to be worst hit. Embedding social justice in our response is not only the most effective way of mobilising our collective resources to deal with the problem, it will also show how averting climate catastrophe can be a pathway to a more effective and enlightened economy.