Back to business (as usual)

The prime minister is showing his true colours and they are far from green. But the public and businesses have other ideas, says David Burrows.

Rewind to the start of lockdown and there was a haunting feeling that the coronavirus would not only stop the world in its tracks, but also derail efforts to halt an arguably greater risk – climate change.

It hasn’t quite turned out that way. Whilst coronavirus and the resultant recession is top of every politician’s “to do” list, the pressure is also on them to deliver a so-called “green recovery”, placing climate change at the heart of any economic resuscitation policies.

In a May report, Covid-19 Risks Outlook: a preliminary mapping and its implications, the World Economic Forum warned of a “vicious cycle” of climate degradation, biodiversity loss and future infectious disease outbreaks. The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals could also be in jeopardy.

“On the one hand,” the authors wrote, “calls for a green recovery by a range of leaders, sustainability-focused stimulus packages by large economies, and potential changes in production models and consumer behaviours may support the sustainability agenda. On the other hand, brown stimulus measures, cuts in sustainability investment, weaker commitments to climate and nature action, and the impact of low oil prices create new risks of stalling progress.”

Rather than two hands I have gone for two camps: “build back better” and “bulldoze and be damned”. Last week we got a sense of which the prime minister is in. “…the newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and the prosperity of this country,” said Boris Johnson, as he announced a future of greener, better and faster building projects.

In just a few words, Johnson arguably undid three years of groundwork that Michael Gove, his close cabinet ally, had put in wooing the environmental lobby and convincing the public there was a “greenie” at the centre of this government.

“I am […] an environmentalist because of hard calculation as well as the promptings of the heart,” Gove said in his first major speech as environment secretary in July 2017. “We need to maintain and enhance the natural world around us, or find ourselves facing disaster. Unless we take the right environmental action we risk seeing more species die out, with potentially undreamt of consequences in terms of the health and balance of nature.”

That, apparently, doesn’t include newts, nor any other wildlife that gets in the way of construction projects. Did we expect anything less from a populist leader?

Political careers can be short term so long term risks tend to fall down the to-do list. As the World Bank noted in a 2013 report entitled Pandemic Risk: “Leaders in private and official circles may ignore pandemic risks, because they consider that nothing will (probably) happen on their watch, that alarming approaches will make them unpopular, and that tackling existing, visible, problems will provide greater exposure and better prospects.”

Ignoring climate change is certainly a gamble. A poll last year showed that concern over climate change had reached “record levels”: 75% of the public felt we were already feeling the effects of climate change here, up from 41% back in 2010, according to Ipsos Mori.

In a global Ipsos poll conducted to mark World Environment Day last month, 70% of Brits said the government should make environment protection a priority in recovery from Covid-19.

Support for a green recovery, meanwhile, was a slightly less impressive 58%. Perhaps this is because no-one really knows what that looks like yet. Indeed, the Chancellor’s summer statement last week was focused on short-term support, with a decent share going to help foodservice and hospitality recover. Rishi Sunak threw a couple of green initiatives into the mix but reaction amongst environmentalists has been mixed. Pressure will now build towards his autumn statement – and that will come from the private sector too, including food businesses.

Encouragingly, there is little evidence to date that many are looking to roll back on their commitments on carbon emissions, single-use packaging or any other environmental and ethical initiatives. The likes of Compass, Coca Cola and Asda are all joining calls for a recovery plan with sustainability at its heart. Momentum had been building for months until March, and there is hope that even this devastating pandemic can’t derail that.

After all, it’s not just the newts that are in danger.

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