Never Waste A Good Crisis
Updated: Apr 14
So said Winston Churchill, the political idol of the current prime minister.
It’s April 2020. In the face of the coronavirus crisis and rising infections, Downing Street announces an ambitious plan to get to “net zero infections” in the UK by 2050. According to the prime minister, flanked by his chief advisors at a press conference, zero new infections by 2050 is impossible as we must look after the health of the economy at the same time. Coronavirus would have to become part of the cost of doing business in the future. Indeed, boosting international travel and making trade deals with countries that have worse outbreaks will be essential in the years ahead, to give "Global Britain" a much-needed shot in the arm. The government will do everything possible over the next few decades so there will be no new infections by 2050, ‘net’ of a residual infection rate that will be inevitable by keeping everything going much as before.
The announcement with its graphs and targets is reassuring, not least because there will be no immediate disruption or change to everyday life. It is broadly welcomed by everyone. Everyone except for an increasing majority who become infected. However, some feel that thirty years is too long to get the infection rate down to net zero. After all, the pandemic is an emergency and they pledge to get to “net zero infections” within the next ten years – despite the naysayers who doubt such over-ambition.
It’s April 2020. In the face of the environment and climate crisis, rising temperatures and mass extinctions, Downing Street announces that it will take drastic action now to address this emergency and not wait for an international climate summit in Glasgow the following year. According to the prime minister, flanked by his chief advisors at a press conference, carbon zero “seems impossible until it is done”. The UK will treat this crisis as a clear and present danger to our wellbeing. Carbon intensive industries and heavy polluters will be shut down within the next few months and the government will compensate the companies and employees affected. Unlike a furlough scheme where there’s nothing for them to do, a voluntary public work relief programme (not unlike FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps) will be set up for furloughed workers and run by local authorities. It is expected that over two million people will enter this new retraining programme within a year and contribute millions of workdays towards building a clean economy.
The announcement also includes an additional budget of £37 billion, to be spent over the next two years, on a host of measures aimed at drawing down greenhouse gas emissions, restoring collapsing ecosystem services, boosting circular economies locally, and strengthening community resilience in the face of irreversible change. The £37 billion figure is considered adequate for this first phase. After all, it’s the same as the UK government would budget for a much simpler Track and Trace system. The fiscal stimulus package would kick start a new kind of economy and unlocks a sense of euphoria not felt since "Cool Britannia". What excites people more than the level of investment is the commitment to allocate much of the money to devolved governments, local authorities and citizens assemblies, tasked with helping people directly to make this transition and to do so as fairly as possible.
This announcement is broadly welcomed by everyone. Everyone except for a dwindling minority who have benefited disproportionately from the status quo. Some feel that we need to put a stake in the ground and commit to a date when we will reach carbon zero. However, the situation is clearly an emergency and the debate about longer term trajectories and targets can wait until after this immediate mobilisation.
It’s April 2021. What the pandemic has proven is that the climate crisis has never been treated as a crisis.
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