The coronavirus pandemic will change the world, but it is impossible to know how – the green economy must now strive to shape the new normal. Right now, as the worst pandemic in over a century sweeps the globe stretching health systems and economies to breaking point, there are no silver linings. Indeed, the search for them, while instinctively understandable and psychologically comforting, could prove to be counterproductive.
As the crisis escalated, before the reality of overwhelmed intensive care units started to dawn, there was more than a little speculation about how this global health emergency would curb greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality, and encourage more sustainable working practices and localised communities. Less flying, more working from home, a new appreciation of the simple things in life.
All true, perhaps. But falling emissions driven by economic distress are rarely sustainable, and easily reversible. Enforced systems change, imposed without public consent, will never last.
More important still, the biggest threat to a net zero transition that is fast winning the economic argument remains a culture war backlash against accelerating decarbonisation. Allowing opponents of climate action to paint the inconvenience and isolation of the most traumatic period most people have ever lived through as part of some green masterplan, as Stephen Pollard did this week for Unherd, is emotionally tone deaf and strategically dumb. “Is this what a green world looks like?” Pollard asks. No, obviously not, is the answer. But his is a narrative that could stick if environmental campaigners celebrate this year’s inevitable emissions reductions and changed working patterns too vociferously. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres observed this week in a withering response to a question about sharply falling emissions projections, “we will not fight climate change with a virus”.