Eco-politics succeeds only with voters who feel guilty about being rich. Covid-19 will put paid to that
Roger Harrabin, the BBC’s evangelically green environment analyst, recently wrote this on his employer’s website:
“I’ve just had a light bulb moment. The feisty little wren chirping loudly in the matted ivy outside my back door is telling us something important about global climate change. That’s because, intertwined with the melodious notes of a robin, I can actually hear its song clearly. Normally, both birds are muffled by the insistent rumble of traffic, but the din has been all but extinguished in the peace of lockdown.”
Ah, the peace of lockdown. It is, for us lucky ones, very real. It is two months to the day since I last left my rural county. Never before have I experienced so much quiet here, or brighter stars. My long daily walks are almost mystically beautiful in their combination of light and air, the sound of nature and the silence of machines. If I were Wordsworth, I would give thanks in verse. Like Harrabin, I love hearing more wrens and robins and less traffic, and want it to continue.
What might that involve, though? The light-bulb over Harrabin’s head – powered, of course, by green energy – is telling him that we must, in the new eco-buzz phrase, “Build Back Better”. Governments, in their Covid recovery packages, should support only companies and projects “which decouple economic growth from GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions”. Otherwise, we shall not achieve Net Zero. I am quoting from a recent working paper of the Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment with the snappy title, “Will Covid-19 fiscal recovery accelerate or retard progress on climate change?” Its authors include the grandest of global greens such as Joseph Stiglitz and Lord Stern.
Their opening paragraph says: “The Covid-19 crisis could mark a turning point in progress on climate change. This year, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will fall by more than in any other year on record. The percentage declines likely in 2020, however, would need to be repeated, year after year, to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Instead, emissions will rebound once mobility restrictions are lifted and economies recover, unless governments intervene.”
The authors are in a bind. They half-recognise that Covid-19 – not just medically, but socio-economically – is a disaster from which societies will wish to recover. Yet it has brought about what they want. Emissions have fallen unprecedentedly because of the extreme economic contraction it has produced. Focus on their point that such a decline “would need to be repeated, year after year” to save the planet. They want the Covid effect – without, of course, the illness bit – to go on forever.
That effect means two related things. The first is an enormous increase in government control. To fight the disease, we have had to surrender large parts of our freedom to work, trade, associate, travel, worship, even vote (local government elections being postponed) and in many cases our right to a family life.
The second effect is greater poverty. This is caused by the compulsory stoppage of so many businesses, with consequent insolvencies, wage cuts and job losses. The poverty has been mitigated and delayed by government measures. This may not directly damage Harrabin or me as, on full pay, we enjoy the intertwining of chirpy wrens and melodious robins (though we shall surely notice it later in our taxes); but it was shockingly unexpected and is becoming shockingly real. It has also made billions anxious, lonely and gloomy.
Stiglitz, Stern and Co are right that “emissions will rebound once mobility restrictions are lifted and economies recover, unless governments intervene”, but they do not seem to understand what they are saying. Why will emissions rebound? Because people will travel more – especially in cars (which are much safer than public transport against the virus). And why will economies recover? Because growth is a function of activity, and activity is made possible by energy, and globally energy remains about 85 per cent dependent on fossil fuels.