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A green light for recovery?

Words: Huw Morris
Green verge

The coronavirus pandemic has left the economy in dire need of emergency care. The call for a ’green’ recovery is growing louder, as Huw Morris reports – but is the government listening?

Economics is the only field in which two people win the Nobel Prize for saying opposing things. Proponents of the dismal science – invented, it is said, to make astrology look good – wisecrack that if you put 10 economists into a room, you will get 11 opinions.

Recovering from the Covid-19 crisis is no joke. Yet the pandemic is broadly dividing opinions into three cohorts, each one signified by a letter. 

Wild optimists, now few in number, predict a V-shaped recovery. Others say the letter will be U. But with Covid-19 revealing a sharp divergence between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ as well as along ethnic lines, a big fear is a K-shaped recovery amid the context of runaway climate change.

For many, the answer is a green recovery that also tackles inequalities and does not allow the opportunity presented by the crisis to go to waste.

“With Covid-19 revealing a sharp divergence between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ as well as along ethnic lines, a big fear is a K-shaped recovery”

What is it? How can it be achieved? And what can planning do? (See box, The world we need: Planning and the green recovery)

Ed Miliband sums up the wreckage left by Covid-19. The Labour Party’s shadow business secretary calls it “a moment of profound economic distress for the country”, with people losing their jobs at an alarming rate.

“We need a zero-carbon army, helping all workers. There is so much work to be done, from home energy insulation to designing and producing zero-emission vehicles to renewable energy production to reforesting and improving our green spaces and redesigning and improving our towns and cities.”

The world we need: Planning and the green recovery

The RTPI is campaigning for a very different type of recovery from earlier shocks in UK history, outlined in a research paper published in late June, Plan The World We Need. Its vision is to rebuild a more sustainable, resilient and inclusive society, warning that “a failure to act now will simply defer costs to future generations and the most vulnerable, with the risks of climate and ecological breakdown to a weak economy becoming rapidly unmanageable in scale and complexity”.

Its sees three common themes for a green recovery:

Sustainability: supporting job growth in sectors which can accelerate progress towards net-zero carbon, avoiding investments and bailouts which lock in greenhouse gas emissions, and investing in the education and training needed to up-skill workforces.  

Resilience: future-proofing assets to extreme weather events and reducing reliance on global supply chains through domestic and decentralised manufacturing and production. 

Inclusivity: creating healthy and equitable communities by targeting support to the most vulnerable in society, and improving democratic participation in decisions about the future.

These all require substantial investment underpinned by planning that links the recovery to people and places.

“It’s not just a green recovery for accelerating towards net-zero carbon but also one which tackles social inequalities we see in the built environment,” says RTPI policy and networks manager James Harris. “We need a green recovery but we also need a just recovery.

“This is about tying together the social with the environmental and economic. We know a lot about the underlying issues such as affordable housing, better quality of life, access to infrastructure, tackling the looming environmental crisis but also the inequalities that go with them. All of these issues are at the heart of planning. But the problem over the past two decades, especially in England, is the loss of planning’s capacity to deal with these problems.

“This means moving to planning that has a coordinating role, looking at what you can do to make the built environment more sustainable and equal.”

Plan The World We Need – the contribution of planning to a sustainable, resilient and inclusive recovery

A great green reset?

Miliband is just one voice. A vast array of environmentalists, lobbyists, business leaders, professional groups, charities and creative artists want to build back better, not business as usual.

As the UK stands at a historic crossroads, potentially facing the deepest recession in three centuries, decisions made in the months ahead will have consequences for the economy and communities for decades.

“The UK is facing its biggest economic shock for a generation,” says Committee for Climate Change (CCC) chairman Lord Deben. “Meanwhile, the global crisis of climate change is accelerating. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address these urgent challenges together; it’s there for the taking.

“This is not the moment to resuscitate industries whose business models are incompatible with delivering the Paris agreement”

“The steps that the UK takes to rebuild from the Covid-19 pandemic can accelerate the transition to a successful and low-carbon economy and improve our climate resilience. Choices that lock in emissions or climate risks are unacceptable.”

The government is pondering how to resuscitate the economy, a process that will reach a significant milestone in the Autumn Budget. One area of concern, according to Sussex University international relations professor Peter Newell, is to avoid business as usual. “The rush to kick-start the economy, combined with the losses they have suffered, is emboldening airline industries and fossil fuel firms to claim bailouts,” he says.

“Beyond providing compensation and retraining opportunities for workers, this is not the moment to resuscitate industries whose business models are incompatible with delivering the Paris agreement when there are so many other sectors deserving state support.

“Rapid transitions out of these sectors were required before the crisis; the coronavirus has served to precipitate their decline and provides an opportunity for an economy-wide rethink.”

The rewards could be huge. A low-carbon and renewable energy economy could create nearly 700,000 jobs by 2030 in England, increasing to 1.18 million by 2050, according to the Local Government Association (LGA). Demand for green jobs will increase rapidly as the nation transitions to a net-zero economy with such a “bonanza” helping to offset the expected job losses due to Covid-19. The LGA is calling for national skills, employment schemes and funding to be devolved to councils and combined authorities.

“There is a different world out there and it must become a better world”

“Demand for green jobs is due to sky-rocket as we move towards a net-zero economy and local government, with its local knowledge and expertise, is best placed to ensure the workforce in every region of the country can successfully surf the new wave of employment opportunities,” says the LGA’s City Regions board chair Sir Richard Leese.

For its part the Wildlife and Countryside Link, a coalition of 57 environmental groups, calls for a £315 million investment into 330 “shovel-ready” nature protection and restoration projects. This would help to introduce 200,000 hectares of terrestrial and marine habitat, create 10,000 jobs and even out inequalities while locking down millions of tonnes of carbon. The schemes were either stopped by the lockdown or could be introduced quickly. A “conservation corps” or National Nature Service for England would deliver them while providing training, exercise, contact with nature and an income for the unemployed.

For Lord Deben, the lockdown has changed people’s perceptions.

“People have had the opportunity to think about themselves, their children, the future and they have come to the conclusion – very widely – that what we need is a step change in all kinds of ways. There is a different world out there and it must become a better world.”

Otherwise, some economists fear, any long-term recovery will ultimately be L-shaped.

Huw Morris is consultant editor for The Planner

Not so new, not so green

By Simon Wicks, deputy editor of The Planner

In late June, Boris Johnson announced a package of measures to support economic revival that he termed, in an explicit effort to encourage comparison with the interwar US president Theodore Roosevelt, a ‘new deal’ for the UK.

The intimation was that it would have a similar impact on the UK economy as the enormous programme of economic renewal that dragged the US economy out of the mire of 1930s recession and laid the foundation for almost a century of economic and political primacy.

But, as we outline on pages 4-5, there is little – if anything – new about the schemes announced and, at just 0.2 per cent of GDP (compared with the US New Deal’s 40 per cent), it’s not much of a deal either.

Nor, with its focus on traditional infrastructure projects, does it set the tone for the green recovery called for by campaigners, businesses, health professionals, politicians and even the government’s own advisers. Yes, Johnson pledged to plant 75,000 acres of trees a year by 2025; yes, there was £40 million for local conservation projects; and, yes, the government had previously said that ‘shovel-ready’ local projects worth £900 million should be environmentally friendly.

But these figures are a drop in the ocean compared with the £14 billion that think tank the Green Alliance has calculated will be needed for the UK simply to meet its self-imposed CO2 targets. And it pales beside the £27 billion put aside for roadbuilding by the chancellor in March.

As if stung into action, in early July, Rishi Sunak pledged £2 billion to householders for home insulation as part of a wider £3 billion green investment package. But, as critics pointed out, this is considerably less than the £9.2 billion pledged for the same thing in the Conservative Party election manifesto. What's more, the prime minister's grandiose promise of a ‘new deal’ – whether green or no – looks a mere trifle beside Germany’s considerably greater £36 billion investment in green jobs and energy efficiency.

Image credit l Getty Images