The political and economic landscape has been profoundly reshaped by coronavirus. The immediate human tragedy of the pandemic is incalculable, but it has also been a grim test for the machinery of the state – testing the resilience of our public services and and renewing demands on state intervention.
The post-Covid recovery is a critical juncture. The lockdown is an almost unprecedented event, and it’s likely that the recession which is on the horizon will be the deepest in our lifetimes. The question of how we navigate this crisis – and what kind of world comes after it – has profound implications for the future.
Just around the corner from this global crisis, another is coming into view. This is the UK’s hottest April in over 300 years. Alarm bells are ringing for widespread famine in southern Africa, with food riots already spreading across Nigeria. Ash still falls on Australia – and the full impact on biodiversity from the loss of over 1 billion animals killed in the fires is yet to be fully excavated.
Sure, pollution levels have reduced, flights have been grounded and estimates from Carbon Brief point to almost 5.5% drop in global emissions due to coronavirus. We’ve all seen the ‘nature is healing, we are the virus’ meme doing the rounds on social media.
Put into perspective, however, even these emissions drops fall short of what is required to limit global warming to 1.5°C, which would need to see emissions fall 7.6% every year this decade.
Before the pubs and offices reopen, we should argue for a recovery that prioritises rapid decarbonisation, takes the threat of climate change seriously and tackles the inequality so starkly laid bare in recent months. Post-Covid, it’s time for a Green New Deal.
A New Economy
In the first instance, key industries should be brought into public ownership. State intervention has proved pivotal during the pandemic – beyond the public health efforts of the NHS, the government is paying many people’s wages, beefing up council budgets, housing the homeless and even providing broadband for disadvantaged children. But the value of nationalised services extends far beyond public health emergencies.
The state can do what the private sector can’t: long-term planning and the equitable sharing of benefits. Sectors like transport and energy are both costly and carbon-intensive, fuelling social inequality and climate change. Alternative models of ownership would improve service quality and shift towards carbon neutrality at high speed.
Coronavirus has triggered a crisis in oil, calling into question the future of an industry already incompatible with human survival. Rather than put it on life support, the frail fossil fuel industry should see oil rigs nationalised and subsidies removed, followed by a swift downscaling of output. In public hands, workers’ wages would be protected, facilitating a just transition rather than one that solely benefits CEOs and shareholders.
Similar approaches could be taken to the aviation industry which is floundering in an economy stripped of demand for flights. In public hands, air travel could be scaled down via a frequent flyer levy, which seems far preferable to bailing out Virgin Airlines to the tune of £500 million. Likewise, the temporary nationalisation of rail services should be maintained, benefitting commuters, the taxpayer and potentially the planet.
It is vital to resist an incrementalist politics with no interest beyond local or “community” ownership – some utilities like the national grid are best run in national hands. A mixed, democratic approach of national ownership and community wealth-building projects is not just economically prudent but necessary for rapid decarbonisation.
Public ownership alone, however, won’t be sufficient for a post-Covid transition to a zero carbon economy. It should come coupled with a substantial green jobs programme which is a core proposal of the Green New Deal.
Coronavirus has exposed the precariousness of many people’s livelihoods and forced a reinterpretation of social value – suddenly we are clapping for the low-paid, migrant workers who have been targeted by Tory austerity for over a decade. 3.2 million people have been furloughed and the Institute for Employment Studies estimate an added 1.5 to 2 million workers have lost their jobs since the crisis began, twice the number of the 2008 crash.
The scale both of climate breakdown and the burgeoning unemployment crisis strengthens the argument for state provision of fulfilling, well-paid and sustainable work. Just as grounded aviation staff were offered roles to support the Nightingale hospital, a green jobs programme would offer upskilling for workers and expand sectors like carework, energy efficiency, green transport, agroecology and reforestation.
Coupled with an ambitious apprenticeships scheme, a green jobs programme would also build the foundation of a zero carbon, renewable energy system. Rapidly reducing fossil fuels cannot occur without the construction of an alternate energy infrastructure. We shouldn’t return to precarious, carbon-intensive jobs that fuel private profit and extraction. Ambitious proposals must be put forward for jobs that work for both people and planet.
Among these structural changes, we should embrace a new discourse of universal rights. Coronavirus has exposed inequalities lying beneath the surface of public life.
From adequate housing to access to green space to clean air, we should be advocating for redesigns of public life and space to accord new public rights within a more equal and green society.
A pre-pandemic poll from January showed climate change was the third most important issue facing Britain today, the highest mark for an environmental issue in over 30 years.
By April, coronavirus was quite rightly the biggest issue, polling at 85%. But in the wake of government failure to adequately prepare for this crisis, the argument to invest in the economy to protect from the next crisis – climate chaos – is only growing stronger.
The case for economic security and health for everyone have never been more salient. The collective trauma of coronavirus might yet beget a collective transformation, reorienting our society and economy. But if we want a future where the climate emergency is tackled, we’ll have to fight for it.