Governments should put green technology investments at the heart of any economic recovery plans to deal with the fall-out from Covid-19, according to experts.
Restrictions on work and travel mean levels of air pollution and carbon dioxide have fallen sharply during the coronavirus pandemic, which is now expected to cause the biggest ever annual fall in CO2 emissions.
But this has come at a huge cost to people’s material conditions across the world. In the UK, for example, data from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) shows that 9.3 million people have been furloughed as of 28 June, out of a workforce of about 32 million.
“We are all in the same storm, but we are in different boats,” Niclas Svenningsen, global climate action manager at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), told delegates at the inaugural Climate Action: Net Zero by 2050 conference.
“It’s certainly different to sit in a well-off economy, in a well-paid job somewhere in Europe, to being in an exposed job maybe in India or in Bangladesh or in Brazil, where you are losing your livelihood and your income and your house,” said Svenningsen, highlighting the parallel with climate change, which is already “mostly impacting vulnerable segments of the [global] population”.
He said Covid-19 was a “test case for climate change”, and that the unabated effects of global climate change would create a much more dire social and economic situation than the current pandemic.
“This is not something that anybody can deal with individually,” said Svenningsen. “No single country can deal with Covid-19 on its own. Neither can you do this with climate change – we need to work together.”
He warned governments not to implement measures that return things to “business as usual” as economies open up.
“Are we investing to get [the economy] back to business as usual? Or are we trying to invest into smart sectors, in green infrastructure, green transports, green communication, green production and change the long-term structure of society into something more sustainable, that is also better prepared to meet the challenge of climate change?” said Svenningsen.
In an effort to normalise sustainability, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which co-organised the conference with UNFCCC, has made climate action a core part of its contractual relationships with suppliers.
“Rather than a ‘nice to have’, we are actually making it a core part of contracted solutions, whether that’s in software, hardware, infrastructure or in product,” said Chris Howes, chief digital and information officer at Defra and the senior responsible officer for the cross-governmental Green ICT Delivery Unit.
“We recognise that we can’t do this alone,” said Howes, adding that technology was a “strategic enabler to reduce our impact on the environment by finding new ways of delivering improved outcomes”.
In 2018, Defra established the e-Sustainability Alliance, which seeks to promote, collect, share and implement best practice with its suppliers and supply chain, he said.
“Through the Defra approach, we refer to five strategic pillars,” said Howes. “Reducing or mitigating carbon emissions, efficient resource use and reduction of waste, demonstrating transparency and mitigating risk, making sustainability business as usual, and providing net gains for the environment.”
He added: “The pillar I want to call out is making sustainability business as usual – once you get this right, you get all the pillars, in our view.”
Paul Caldwell, chief executive of the UK’s Rural Payments Agency, said that although the land managers his agency supports tend to be “passionate advocates for safeguarding the environment”, agricultural and peatland use still account for 12% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions – “a significant contribution that can’t be overlooked”, he said.
However, Caldwell said more research and development is needed in the sector to make greener practices and technology “economically viable” for farmers on the ground.
“We need to have a renewed focus on researching and developing tools and systems to enable the sorts of outcome that we would like to fund,” he said, adding that net-zero ambitions should be at the heart of any new tech research.