People relax in the hot weather while maintaining a social distance in London Fields park in east London on Thursday
People relax in the hot weather while maintaining a social distance in London Fields park in east London on Thursday © Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty

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The writer is a senior fellow at Harvard University and advises the UK Department of Health and Social Care

Can we build back better? As governments encourage consumers to start spending again, I have been wondering whether green goals would be subsumed by the need to shore up livelihoods.

Until now, environmentalism has tended to wane when economies turn down. But as the world endures its second hottest spring on record it seems the pandemic may be wreaking lasting changes in public attitudes.

A UK citizens’ assembly has given overwhelming support to more government action to reach net-zero carbon emissions. I am sceptical about how representative a group of 108 people can ever be and it looks as though the group focused more on easy hits, such as promoting cycling, than hard stuff like quotas on air travel. But assemblies of a similar size paved the way for Ireland’s historic referendum on abortion and same-sex marriage. The findings suggest that letting people engage with detail — the assembly spent six weekends with experts — may produce surprising levels of consensus.

This should give succour to politicians, who fear to move too far ahead of voters. The gilets jaunes protests in Paris, provoked originally by fuel taxes, were an ugly reminder of the clash between green goals and livelihoods. But it’s not impossible to square the circle. You can raise taxes on carbon, for example, and reduce them on income. The UK Committee for Climate Change argues in its latest report that now is not a bad time to raise fuel taxes, with oil prices so low — especially if we reinvest the revenue to create green jobs.

The pandemic has upended assumptions and accelerated timescales. Environmentalists had expected the next round of UN climate talks, which were scheduled for November, to mark the next stage of progress; but the moment has already arrived. The recovery from Covid-19 offers a unique opportunity, precisely because the economic havoc wreaked by the virus has turned western states into all-powerful Leviathans.

Like it or not, Treasury secretaries of nation states will control the commanding heights of their economies for a while to come. Some have already linked their bailouts to green goals. France’s Elysée has ordered Air France to set stringent new carbon targets in return for rescue. Canada has faced down pleas from its oil and gas industry to lower environmental standards, and insisted that any large business wanting state help must publish annual climate disclosure reports.

It is time to make climate disclosure mandatory. Managed correctly, it is an intelligent way to nudge businesses into figuring out the most efficient routes to carbon reduction. More than 1,000 companies have signed up voluntarily to the framework of the Task Force on Climate Related Financial Disclosures, which involves tracking emissions from products and operations and assessing climate risk along supply chains.

Governments should wake up to this phenomenal shift: though they must resist the temptation to over-reach. In trying to create its own taxonomy, rather than aligning with the TCFD, the EU is in danger of producing overly bureaucratic climate disclosure standards which may not help companies get the right data to make useful decisions.

There is a new urgency around these issues which is not captured by vague international goals to reach net zero by 2050. Parts of the fossil fuel economy may become stranded assets much sooner than that, as BP’s historic writedown two weeks ago suggests. A month ago, 300 American companies with a combined valuation of $11.5tn urged Congress to back accelerated transition to a net zero emissions economy.

The world is witnessing the unusual situation of companies urging faster action from governments in shaping the market. And indeed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts suggest that even limiting warming to 1.5C by 2050 could still play havoc with the climate. In the background is the growing realisation that the dramatic falls in emissions we have seen during lockdown are tiny compared to the scale of the problem. Global emissions will fall this year, possibly by 6 per cent, according to the International Energy Agency, but carbon dioxide is still being added to the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, extreme weather is increasingly impinging on our consciousness. The sunshine has helped many of us get through lockdown, and I have blessed it every day, but it is daunting to realise that this has been a global phenomenon. May 2020 tied with 2016 as the world’s hottest on record, and South America, Europe, Asia and the Gulf of Mexico have had their warmest ever year to date, while February 2020 was the wettest on record in the UK. Levels of Arctic sea ice have also seen substantial falls. Not all of this is directly attributable to climate change, but the trend is becoming impossible to ignore.

Like coronavirus, climate change is an invisible threat that demands collective action. Mustering the public and business support to tackle it has sometimes seemed an impossible goal. But lockdowns have brought a new awareness of what life might be like with less pollution. They have also — and this has been less commented on — demonstrated a surprising willingness of citizens across the world to respond positively and responsibly to restrictions set by governments which were initially unsure whether voters would comply.

The world walks into summer with hope that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, but the knowledge that the environmental crisis is already unfolding. Just as they did with the coronavirus, governments must seize this chance to be much braver than they had expected to be.

Letter in response to this column:

Politicians need scorecards to mark green goals / From Christopher Rodrigues, Past Chair of Visit Britain and past Trustee of the National Trust, Longborough, Gloucestershire, UK

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