Early in July, a cross-party coalition of Mayors and council leaders came together as a Resilient Recovery Taskforce, with secretariat provided by UK100, to call on the Chancellor to commit to a ‘New Deal for Green Skills and Growth’ in his forthcoming Spending Review, expected in the Autumn. The opportunity for an economic recovery package that creates resilience in our communities and reduces carbon emissions is more possible now than it has ever been. However, success lies in a renewed partnership between UK Government and Local Governments that looks to the future and commits to large scale investment that reduces our climate emissions and builds back better.
The social distancing and resulting lockdowns put in place to tackle COVID-19 is likely to cause the biggest drop in climate emissions ever recorded. Analysts estimate worldwide carbon pollution will plunge by more this year than the combined reductions seen during the global financial crisis, World War II and the Spanish flu. However, it is the actions that are taken as social distancing restrictions ease that will define our ability to tackle wider global challenges such as climate change and the need to build socially-just economic prosperity. Put simply, the opportunity to accelerate our efforts into developing a low carbon economy is now.
The COVID-19 crisis may of course only temporarily cut emissions. As shuttered factories begin to reopen, commuters get back into their cars and flights once again take to the air, little may have changed in the structure of the global economy – and progress towards net-zero will likely be as slow as ever and air pollution may return to city streets. Unless there are concerted efforts by governments, nationally and locally, to ensure this does not happen, our current global tragedy could sow the seeds for the next one.
As we have seen with the global spread of COVID-19, no problem exists in isolation. While the UK was brought to a near standstill at the height of the lockdown, with road travel plummeting by as much as 73%, activity is now returning to near pre COVID-19 levels with car use now at 79% compared with before the COVID-19 outbreak, with vans and lorries at 92% and 97% respectively.
With a COVID-19 vaccine seemingly some way off in the distance, it’s likely that there will continue to be a sharp rise in car travel over time at the expense of public transport so as to maintain social distancing. Now, more than ever, the need for UK Government increased investment in public transport is vital to keep services running.
For our wider economy, the post-pandemic outlook remains extremely uncertain, due to the unknown duration and severity of COVID-19 measures and doubts over the shape of the recovery. Analysis by the International Monetary Fund has resulted in them slashing their forecasts for global growth in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and warning of a slump in output this year unparalleled since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Towns and cities around the world are taking the lead in post-coronavirus planning, with a raft of environmental initiatives being rolled out in places from Bristol to Bogotá to ensure public safety and bolster the actions to tackle the climate emergency. Launching the newly formed Global Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task Force, as part of the C40 group of cities, the mayor of Milan, said: “Our immediate priority is to protect the health of our residents and overcome the Covid-19 pandemic. However, we must also look towards how we will keep our people safe in the future. How we structure our recovery efforts will define our cities for decades to come.”
As the UK Government now begins to plot a course out of lockdown and towards a post COVID-19 new normal, the opportunity must be seized to protect jobs and safeguard the future while paying off debts created by emergency spending on the NHS and household incomes. This means re-evaluating infrastructure investments, such as the planned £28bn UK Government roads programme to ensure the country benefits from a jobs boom from initiatives such as: broadband, batteries, electric cars, home upgrades and infrastructure that enables walking and cycling.
Local leaders have played an essential role in tackling the COVID-19 crisis and they have an essential role in shaping what comes next. In fact, resilient recovery cannot be achieved without local leaders and the communities that they represent. Building back better requires a new dynamic partnership between the Government UK and local governments, a partnership that must be seized if we are to deliver Net Zero and renew our economy for the benefit of our environment, everyone and generations to come.
Jason Torrance, Policy Director, UK100