How Do We Emerge from the Covid-19 Pandemic Climate Friendlier?

Over the past year, we have seen how a change in society’s behaviour can directly impact the climate. As a symptom of worldwide lockdowns, we saw emissions drop by 7% globally. The notion of cleaner cities began to seem viable as photos circulated from empty streets in China where smog had lifted. Whilst this might seem like good news, it is very much a temporary fix, as emissions are expected to quickly rise once lockdowns are lifted. Experts are concerned about the climate being put ‘on the back burner’ as governments attempt to fix their economies. So, how do we avoid this? How do we rebuild our economy in a different way that, quite literally, won’t cost us the Earth? In order to answer this, we need to examine Covid-19’s lasting scars on the younger generations, in particular the younger Millennial and Gen Z population.

The Future Impacts of the Pandemic on Younger Generations

When discussing lockdowns, you often hear the youth exclaiming that they stay in for their parents, for their grandparents and for other vulnerable family members. Those under 30 have faced little risk from coronavirus themselves, yet millions have happily followed government guidelines to keep their loved ones safe. Our youth have taken pride in the sacrifices they have made over the past year; graduations missed, university moved online, travel plans cancelled and job opportunities lost. And what will be the consequence of these lockdowns? Most certainly an economic recession, potentially a depression, falling disproportionately on the young.

Writer Camillla Cavendish perfectly summarises the relationship between the older and younger generations during the pandemic when she writes, ‘it seems to me we must do whatever it takes [including national lockdowns], and spend whatever it costs, to save lives. That does not mean that there is no trade-off. When this grim period comes to an end, and we defeat the virus, we will need to remember the young – and build a society that works better for them.’

Taking Cavendish’s stance on the Covid-19 pandemic one step further, in order to build a society that works for the young, we must curb the climate crisis. With the millennials already being the first UK 30-somethings to earn less than past generations, the older generations, who hold the majority of the wealth, need to offer the youth a helping hand in the battles-to-come against a post-pandemic shrinking economy and increasing global warming.

Whilst money isn’t the only factor in the fight against global warming, those with the wealth have the advantage of being able to vote with their wallet by investing in companies on the right side of the climate crisis. As we discuss in our article on navigating sustainability however, this is easier said than done. It is often hard to decipher which companies are helping our planet and which are shamelessly virtue signalling to push sales. Yet, the simplest way to ensure that we leave future generations with a liveable planet is to stay within our carbon budget. At least, this would be simple if consumers had any idea what our carbon budget is and how much carbon is emitted from the products we buy.

What are Carbon Budgets and How do We Stay Inside of them?

Carbon budgets are the total amount of carbon dioxide emissions permitted over a period of time to keep within a certain temperature threshold. Once the budget has been spent, we must be producing net-zero emissions in order to remain within a temperature threshold. Which means that our carbon sinks must be absorbing the same amount of carbon as we globally emit.

You will often find the temperature thresholds vary between 1.5°C and 2°C of warming. Whilst the Paris Agreement commits to ‘well below’ 2 degrees, climate scientists have expressed concern over the dangerous impact of 2 degrees warming, causing 1.5°C to become the more ambitious target that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been focusing on. Whilst half a degree may not sound like a lot, it is the difference between 14% or 37% of the Earth’s population experiencing severe heatwaves at least once every five years. At 2 degrees warming the deadly heatwaves India and Pakistan saw in 2015, killing 3,600 people, may occur annually. When it comes to biodiversity, at 1.5°C warming, 6% of insects, 8% of plants and 4% of vertebrates will see their geographic ranges reduced by more than half. At 2°C warming, those percentages double. Ocean warming, acidification and more intense storms will cause coral reefs to decline by 70-90% at 1.5°C, whilst they will become non-existent at 2°C. Whilst indigenous peoples and communities with livelihoods based on agriculture or costal resources face the biggest risk from 2°C of warming, there will be knock-on effects which will impact all countries. Limiting warming to 1.5°C will mean 40,000 less people will see their land inundated by 2150, meaning less mass migration of climate refugees to the UK, Europe and America.

Unsurprisingly, this more ambitious target of staying within 1.5°C of warming globally means a much tighter carbon budget, 65% smaller than the budget for 2°C, of 495 gigatonnes of CO2. This means a 55% reduction in global emissions between 2020 and 2030, which works out at a 7.6% reduction in emissions each year if broken down evenly. To put this into perspective, as mentioned above, in the year of the pandemic we saw an estimated 7% drop in emissions. Meaning the world must continue to reduce its emissions at a similar, if not slightly higher rate than the year of global lockdowns.

It is clear that serious emission reductions have to start right now. In order to help our younger generation, we need to rebuild our society in a way that leaves them financially stable in a liveable world not plagued by frequent climate disasters. We know that the whole world needs to stick to the carbon budget, meaning governments need to set specific targets for their country, which many have already done. Beyond this, we need companies to empower consumers with the tools needed to make informed decisions about what they purchase and where they invest their money. We need more transparency and consistency from and between brands so consumers can consciously opt for greener choices.

Indian Heat Wave of 2015, from Encyclopaedia Britannica

Beyond the Consumer: Putting Pressure on Governments for Institutional Change

As consumers we can do our part by spending our money wisely and making greener choices to live an eco-friendlier lifestyle. Yet, there is only so much the individual consumer can do. We need help from our government. We need a clear route out of the pandemic which invests money in rebuilding a greener economy.

This will firstly involve governments ending subsidies to oil and gas companies. In a blog post about the UK’s successes and failures coming up to COP26, Laurie writes: “A report from last year estimates the UK’s annual fossil fuel subsidies at over 14 billion dollars a year. This is the highest subsidy figure across all G20 countries’ estimates and yet the UK government continues to assert that it does not provide any fossil fuel subsidies.” This must be stopped if we are to transition from fossil fuels to a low-carbon economy, which will be a vital step to a greener country as we emerge from the pandemic. As Professor Edward Barbier writes in his paper, ‘pricing carbon and pollution, and removing fossil-fuel subsidies, can accelerate the transition, raise revenues for the necessary public investments, and lower the overall cost of the green transition. This exposes the government’s questionable allocation of budgets so far. Whilst they have been channelling the estimated 14 billion dollars a year into fossil fuel subsidies, they have cut the £1.5 billion green homes grant scheme after only £94.1 million worth of grants was issued. Moreover, the maximum grant for electric cars was reduced from £3,000 to £2,500 in March. The government also lowered the price cap for cars eligible for the subsidy from £50,000 to £35,000.

As well as this, in his paper Barbier suggests how we can help with the issue of biodiversity. He discusses the need for a new global agreement: ‘as parties to the agreement, governments would set over-arching conservation goals and pledge specific national targets, policies and timelines. In addition, wealthier countries should assist conservation in poorer nations.’

Whilst these are policies which need to be put in place by our government, we as consumers can continually put pressure on our government by writing to MPs and signing petitions such as this one, which is taking the government to court to pull the plug on public payments for big polluters.