The colossal challenge facing human civilisation, of ending our reliance on fossil fuels in short order, has almost certainly been made harder by the pandemic. Ever since scientists discovered that the Earth was warming as a result of human activity, it has been a struggle to get people, governments and businesses to do anything about it. Even in those countries least resistant to the evidence of rapidly approaching danger, something else was usually seen as more important. In the past few months, once again, the climate emergency has been knocked off the top of world leaders’ to-do list by the more immediate threat of the virus.
Recognising this, the environmental movement came up with the excellent idea of a green recovery. The annual report published on Thursday by the Committee on Climate Change, which provides official advice to the UK government, is a crucial, national component of that global effort. It sets out to tell Boris Johnson, his ministers and the British public how we can embed the lessons of Covid-19 in the next phase of carbon cuts.
There is some hopeful news, amid the destruction: because of the economic contraction caused by the pandemic, global emissions are expected to fall by 5-10% in 2020. In the UK, the switch to home-working has been far swifter and more dramatic than anything envisioned by climate policymakers. If this can be sustained post-pandemic, the reduction in transport emissions could be huge.
To what extent the overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions can be sustained, either domestically or internationally, will depend on the policies pursued. The committee identifies post-pandemic stimulus spending on high-carbon infrastructure as a threat. Changing attitudes to public transport due to the risk of infection is another. On the other hand, the kind of transformation that will be required if we are to become a zero-carbon world has arguably been made easier by the pandemic. Once people see how fragile and interconnected we really are, pressure for rapid decarbonisation could be expected to grow.
In the UK, the report identifies buildings and transport as key priorities, and has a raft of recommendations geared towards progress in these two areas. Regulations on housebuilding have been disgracefully lax, allowing 1 million new homes to be put up that already require retrofitting to meet energy standards (and allow owners and tenants to benefit from lower bills). Low-carbon heating must be pushed into a dominant position, and out of its current eco-specialist niche. On surface transport, which is now responsible for more emissions than any other sector in the UK (24% in 2019), the popularity of energy-intensive sports utility vehicles (SUVs) is one problem that leaps out. Their market share jumped from 6% in 2008 to 25% in 2019. The shift is mirrored in other countries.
Beyond such practical indications of where action is needed, and highlighting of inconsistencies in areas from agriculture to aviation, the report makes a case for “fairness as a core principle”. This applies domestically, and requires ministers to think about the differential impact of any changes – for example to energy taxes. But it also has global implications, and entails a new way of counting emissions that includes consumption as well as production.
Sound advice is one thing. The capacity to take it is another. Boris Johnson has only chaired one meeting of the cabinet committee on climate change set up last October. This fact on its own is dismal. But the opportunity remains. Next week he is expected to set out how the UK government will approach the recovery. Preparations for the postponed Cop26 climate talks are the ideal way to make this a global discussion. Can Mr Johnson show more effective leadership in the climate crisis than he has during the pandemic? For the UK in 2020 there are few more important questions.