After Covid-19, the economy needs to turn green

Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations – Vienna May 2019
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Across the globe, society is beginning to wonder what the world might look like when Covid-19 is under control. One of the key questions is how to kick-start the economy once we come out of lockdown. Many companies are already looking at how to get thousands of people back into work; many people are also concerned about looking after the environment at the same time. For years, the focus of any environmental policy has been its financial burdens and impacts. Now, it is time to change that focus. Even the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres agrees.

In his message to mark World Earth Day (celebrated every year on April 22), Guterres acknowledged that all eyes were on the Covid-19 pandemic, which he described as “an unprecedented wake-up call.” He recognised the “immediate and dreadful” impact of the coronavirus urging everyone to “work together to save lives, ease suffering and lessen the shattering economic and social consequence”. 

At the same time, he observed that climate disruption was approaching “a point of no return” and a “deep emergency” that long predates the pandemic. It will long outlast it too.

We have already seen that air quality is starting to improve in Yorkshire. In our region, a coalition of local organisations, headed by the United Nations Association (UNA) in Harrogate, has been studying how we can give the economy a green boost once Covid-19 is no longer a major public threat.

Clive Wilson is the chairperson of UNA Harrogate. He told Yorkshire Bylines, “Whilst it is absolutely right and proper to grieve for the many people who have lost their lives in this pandemic, it is also appropriate that we also take this moment to redesign our society. It is hard to achieve transformation when the world is focused on business as usual.”

UNA Harrogate has been working with organisations such as Zero Carbon Harrogate and Energy Oasis, an organisation that helps other companies become more eco-friendly. Mike Kaye, managing director at Energy Oasis, has tabled a “discuss, measure, redesign and invest” system to suggest how businesses can improve their energy efficiency.

At JK Atkinson, a builder’s merchant based in Harrogate, Energy Oasis was able to identify how the company could cut back on its energy costs and make less of an impact on the environment at the same time. According to the case study on their website, JT Atkinson’s electricity consumption is now “approximately £3,150 from a previous average of £12,000–£14,000”.

Investment in transport is also an area that UNA Harrogate has identified as vital to helping the economy transition towards a more sustainable future. Green vehicles, as well as an emphasis on promoting walking and cycling, can contribute to an economy that moves away from fossil fuels, while at the same time promoting our health and wellbeing.

The signs here are positive – commuters are already considering changing their driving habits, with 36 per cent of those surveyed in the AA drivers poll saying they plan to “walk, cycle or run more” after lockdown. The Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, appears to have recognised these changing attitudes. He recently announced a £2bn package aimed at expanding walking and cycling throughout the UK, as well as increasing grants for clean-energy vehicles. Of course, this requires an actual change from the public (more than just attitude), but the initial signs are good.

Electric car charging point in London

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Barry White from Action on Climate Emergency in Settle says, “Every possible effort must now be made to ensure that the recovery, when it comes, is as green as possible; that any and every stimulus package is directed towards renewable energy and zero or low-carbon infrastructure and transport”. The task facing us all is to translate these aspirations into local action. It has never been more important to keep up the pressure locally, nationally and internationally.