By Alex Jackman and Stephanie Wyse, RGS-IBG, UK
The covid-19 pandemic has served a sharp-shock to the global economy. The almost complete ceasing of activity in some sectors due to lockdown measures, and significant slowdown in many others, has reduced the size of the global economy by trillions of dollars. In the UK, the release of economic figures showing a reduction of the economy for the second quarter in a row, means the UK is officially in a recession for the first time in eleven years.
Although a recession was hardly surprising given the pandemic, its announcement has re-invigorated debates around what kind of model economic recovery should be based around. With limited fiscal opportunity or public appetite to build a recovery around further austerity measures, for many, this therefore marks an opportunity to do things differently to 2008.
In particular there have been significant calls for a so-called ‘green recovery’, which uses environmentally sustainable policy responses to COVID-19 as a launching-off point for a deeper green energy transition and transition towards a ‘net-zero’ economy. Yet as recent political discourse, badged around ideas of a ‘green new deal’, or a ‘green industrial revolution’, has argued, there are opportunities use ‘green’ policies to not only stimulate sustainable economic recovery but also to tackle the ‘wicked problems’ of social inequality, climate and environmental change, and improvement of long-term resilience at all levels of society.
The Covid-19 pandemic has not only added complexity to deeply challenging decisions in climate policy but has also highlighted the wider dimensions of climate inequality which have been exacerbated by the vulnerability of current socio-economic systems to large external shocks. Through reduced economic activity and changes in population behaviours, the pandemic has altered emissions and environmental impacts globally, illustrated though the energy sector, especially electricity; the collapsing price of oil, changing mobility patterns, and reductions – temporarily at least – in air pollution during periods of lockdown. These changes have had disproportionate impacts on vulnerable and marginalised communities; minority ethnic patients are more likely to live in polluted and/or deprived environments, and low-income earners have been disproportionately affected by public transport responses to the pandemic.
Balancing the environmental, social and economic impacts of green recovery policies therefore presents a significant challenge to policy makers. Interdisciplinary academic working will be crucial to this, however Geography in particular offers a set of frameworks, skills and knowledge that will be crucial for combining these different issues, analysis and viewpoints, and building consensus. The principles upon which the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals were built, of partnership and inclusivity, remain central to this effort, but so do specific sectoral interventions, place-based initiatives, and ambitious targets.
Financing net-zero and beyond
Earlier this year, the RGS-IBG published a report outlining key discussion points and recommendations from a roundtable between geographers and financial experts on the challenges of building a net-zero economy. This roundtable discussion explored the dual challenges of “financing green” and “greening finance”. The authors of the final report identified a number of realistic and achievable actions that the finance sector can take to reach a net-zero economy, which included:
- Increasing the diversity and use of labelled green financial instruments assets, and the diversity of sectors using them;
- Moving finance out of ‘brown’ (high carbon) activities, including by making the risk and impact of investment on the climate more visible;
- Establishing carbon markets with the net zero goal in mind; and incorporating climate risk more deeply and systematically into financial decision-making.
While addressing systemic challenges in the financial system is one part of the solution, such measures need to be part of a wider, more environmentally sustainable economic response to the pandemic. Green growth will be a key driver of a shared recovery, with commentators suggesting “green projects create more jobs, deliver higher short-term returns per dollar spend and lead to increased long-term cost savings,”. Professor Nick Robins of the Grantham Institute argues that “a sizeable proportion of recovery spending, considerably above the levels seen in 2009– 2010, should be directed to sustainable growth” (see their policy proposals). This proposal is echoed by the IEA and World Economic Forum, who suggest investment in a post-pandemic sustainable transition could create 400 million more jobs.
The role of Geography
The UK, EU and Canada are among those governments which have stated support for a green recovery and there is wide public support for this effort. Research commissioned by Professor Tom MacMillan found only 9% of Britons now want a “total return to normal” after the pandemic. Meanwhile, nearly 80% of Climate Assembly UK members (a UK-representative citizen’s assembly that helps shape future climate policy), said that measures taken by the government to help the economic recovery from Covid-19 should be designed to help reach net zero.
Such change will, of course, require increased coordination across different scales and organisations with Governments playing a decisive role in this. Yet Geography and geographers are also primed to add significant contribution to this. Part of this will be embedded in geographical science. In order to ascertain the real impact of emissions, for example, we need to improve our understanding of embedded and hidden emissions sources across the global economy, and how the pandemic has specifically impacted these. A University of Manchester team has recently added a Covid-19 update to its On Net Zero policy recommendations for different sectors, allowing for real time advice and response to the pandemic.
Beyond this, geographers can also play a key role in highlighting both inequalities and opportunities for change, however. Godfred Amankwaa points out how the pandemic has highlighted severe and persistent inequalities in access to water, raising the question of how economic decisions can address complex socio-environmental challenges holistically. Peter Alexander has suggested that deglobalising the food trade could affect affordability for poorer people, who spend a greater proportion of income on food, and Stefan Bouzarovski has similarly noted that “households vulnerable to fuel poverty and domestic energy deprivation have become more precarious due to income reductions, lack of access to needed infrastructure, and rising energy needs”.
What is increasingly clear is that many people are wanting to see a fundamental shift in how we live as a society. This is not just about the economy and jobs or potential benefits that include cleaner air, lower carbon dioxide emissions, and a shared awareness of spatial inequalities in both access and use. It’s also about equitable access to services, a long-term and just response to climate change, improvements to infrastructure and the places they live in, investment that values their contribution, regionally and nationally.
The economic and societal effects of ‘lockdown’ have demonstrated the impact that society-wide responses can have. However, the complexity of the challenge ahead needs creative and collaborative responses that are also equitable and forward-looking. Geographers contribute many of the necessary tools, frameworks and knowledge to better draw together wide-ranging views and activities in the transition to net zero and beyond as part of a post-pandemic economic recovery.
About the authors: Alex Jackman (Professional and Policy Assistant) and Dr Stephanie Wyse (Professional and Policy Manager) are part of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) team working to highlight and celebrate the impact and relevance of geographical skills, knowledge and understanding for policy- and decision-making. The team’s remit includes a range of knowledge exchange activities and managing the Society’s professional accreditation, Chartered Geographer, and they recently launched a new online series celebrating excellence and innovation in Geovisualisation. Stephanie has PhD in geography from King’s College London and has also worked in higher education, central government and the private sector. Alex, also a geographer, has a Masters in International Development from University of Edinburgh. Learn more about the Society’s work with and for professional communities
Suggested further reading
Hadfield‐Hill, S. (2007), The Greening of Project Finance. Geography Compass, 1: 1058-1075. doi:10.1111/j.1749-8198.2007.00050.x
Jones, A, Taylor, N, Hafner, S, Kitchen, J. (2020). Finance for a future of sustainable prosperity. Area. 2020; 00: 1– 9. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12631
Bulkeley, H. & van Veelen, B (2020). Financing Net Zero: How can investment meet the climate challenge? RGS-IBG https://www.rgs.org/geography/advocacy-and-impact/impact/financing-net-zero/