Finding our way through two emergencies

  • 21 Sep 2020
  • Green recovery

SCCS Chair Tom Ballantine reflects on how our response to the pandemic can shape how we deal with the other crisis we face and the key opportunities that are coming up to take action

The coronavirus crisis has understandably taken up huge amounts of our collective and individual resources, time and attention. But another emergency, the climate emergency, has not gone away. It remains real and pressing. A sense of urgency was initially generated by the UN Special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5° of 2018. It set out the catastrophic costs and impacts of inaction, and the benefits of early action, on climate change. Momentum for that action picked up with strong campaigning from across civil society including the dramatic interventions of Extinction Rebellion and school strikes. We ended 2019 with new Scottish Climate legislation committing Scotland to emission reductions of 75% by 2030 and to achieving nett zero emissions by 2045. The challenge now is to come back from coronavirus in a way that picks up and takes on the imperative for climate action.

In this space we have paused and reflected on our vulnerability and what we truly value: family, community, health, clean air, quieter streets, green spaces and good, reliable food. Safeguarding those things must be the touchstone for what we do next- addressing both a green return from the pandemic and a green transition away from the precipice of catastrophic climate change.

During the pandemic we have also understood the benefit of honesty, accurate scientific advice and acting in accordance with that advice. That understanding, and a willingness to engage with necessary action informed by understanding, must drive our journey forward in response to both crises.

As we pick through the damage and think about how we come back certain climate goals must be to the fore. We in Scotland, UK and the rest of the world have to offer emission reduction commitments that are consistent with limiting heating to 1.5°. Rich countries need to provide financial support for those most impacted by, and least responsible for, climate change in poorer countries around the world.

We have the key United Nations talks on climate change coming to Glasgow next November. At present the targets for emission reductions set by nations for themselves (Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs) are woefully inadequate- propelling us towards 3 to 4° of warming. In Scotland we are in a strong position to set an inspiring example and start to change that. We have targets in our legislation to reduce our domestic emissions by 75% by 2030 reaching nett zero emissions by 2045. That is the perfect platform from which Scotland can make an early commitment to an indicative NDC consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°.

These goals need reconstruction and government support at the more detailed level in practical ways: energy systems that produce 100% renewable electricity by 2030; buildings made fit for the future with regulation and investment to ensure all homes reach the highest standards of energy efficiency by 2030; a transport network that prioritises reducing car use and promotes walking, cycling and the use of public transport.

The reconstruction means no longer throwing away but making the transition to a circular economy and pushing for more reuse and recycling. It means food that is more local and is not wasted. It requires land use that rewards farming that adopts low carbon practices, the planting of trees and restoring peatland. It demands seas properly valued, understood and protected for their role in holding carbon. It needs support for changes to our lifestyles- less driving and flying, more walking and cycling; less time in the office, more working from home

Running through all of this is a value that is not often articulated but has informed the best responses to coronavirus. The idea that all lives are important whether you are talking about a pandemic or the future of the planet. That fundamental principle of justice and fairness needs to be at the heart of future planning. Climate justice requires more money for those most affected elsewhere in the world. It needs a properly thought through and managed transition for workers in Scotland away from the jobs we no longer need, or can afford, to the jobs we desperately need to deliver this transformation.

The cost of a return to ‘business as usual’, or the nearest approximation we can get to it, will be a further push towards climate catastrophe and the environmental, economic and social fallout we have been warned of. The prize of a green and just reconstruction, focussed on wellbeing, is huge- a sustainable future for all of us- young, old and generations to come.

With honesty and determination we can find our way through two emergencies – covid-19 and climate. The opportunity for the transition to an economy focussed on wellbeing has arrived just in time and can bring economic, social and environmental rewards.

How appropriate if 2020 was the year we saw the need for change and made it.