Virus ‘pushes climate change to back burner’

The Government’s fiscal reaction to the coronavirus pandemic proves “the magic money tree has always been there”, Gavin Elliott, head of the BDP Manchester studio believes, and raises the question of why funds were not previously used to tackle climate change.

“It is interesting to compare the approach that people have to climate change and the approach that people have to solving this current dilemma,” he said. 

“Coronavirus is clearly an immediate, urgent crisis that needs to be solved but if you talk to a climate scientist, they would say exactly the same thing about climate change and yet it doesn’t seem to register the same level of Government commitment. 

“If the sums of money that are being necessarily diverted to dealing with Covid-19 were used to insulate homes, swap out gas boilers, electrify the railway lines and put in charging points for electric cars and investing in renewable power, that would probably get us most of the way there but because concerns over climate change are a slow drip rather than a sudden tsunami of panic, it gets ignored.” 

During the global economic downturn over a decade ago, carbon emissions all over the world decreased due to a lull in activity as governments tightened the purse strings and industry slowed. 

But as the world’s economic fortunes turned upwards again and production and construction increased, so too did pollution levels as industries entered into a game of catch-up. 

Elliott fears the same could happen once the coronavirus pandemic is over. 

“The likelihood is that businesses will have varying degrees of stress in terms of cashflow as they manage their way out of this situation, and doing things differently and R&D budgets are probably going to be one of the things they try to reduce.” 

However, Elliott reiterated the message he gave to Manchester’s development community at the BDP Manchester Net Zero Carbon Summit. “Nothing has changed. The early adopters and innovators, and the people that create a new product, will be the people that prosper, and the people who try and cut their way to a better balance sheet probably won’t succeed.” 

Gavin Elliot

Elliott says that Manchester won’t achieve its target for carbon reduction this year

He added that the unprecedented financial measures announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak to deal with the virus could have a negative impact on future investment in tackling the climate crisis. 

“Government is currently borrowing money from the banks to deal with Covid-19 and indebtedness is going to go through the roof. So the likelihood of them extending it further to climate change significantly reduces. 

“[Government] will be in a mindset of paying back the money borrowed to deal with one crisis rather than investing to solve another one.” 

For those pinning their hopes to the idea that the current lockdown could help Manchester, which is aims to reduce its carbon emissions by 50% over the next five years, achieve its target of being carbon neutral by 2038, Elliott had another a message. “Perversely, the current situation has helped in some respects but even if we stay in this current lockdown for the next three to four months what you will find is that we still won’t achieve the reduction required for this year.  

“We will probably get a lot nearer than we would have done without what’s going on at the moment but the levels of reduction required, and the action required to achieve those levels, are completely unprecedented.” 

However, Elliott was hopeful that some good could come of the current situation but warned that the issue of climate change would still be there once the Covid-19 pandemic was over. 

“One thing that people are realising is that it is possible to communicate without going to face-to-face meetings and without flying and travelling all the time. Home-working, using technology and doing things over the internet are some of the potential mitigation strategies for reducing carbon emissions. You have to hope that some of these things become embedded in working culture.

“In the end once we emerge from this current crisis, which is all about dealing with risk and making sure we all live to fight another day, the next item on the agenda, which if anything is an even bigger problem, is climate change. That issue hasn’t gone away, it has temporarily been put on the back burner.”

Elliott recently stepped down as chair of the Manchester Climate Change Partnership after more than five years.

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