The rebuild diaries

11th December 2020

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Christopher Martin

Are your environmental management and sustainability practices likely to become more or less important due to COVID-19? For 74% of the 453 corporates in six countries quizzed by the Carbon Trust, the answer is 'more important'. However, the picture in the UK is less encouraging: that 74% drops to 58% – lower than Germany (82%), Mexico (79%), Spain (78%), France (75%) and Singapore (72%).

UK firms are also less convinced that the pandemic will drive environmental and ethical behaviours. Sure, 64% say their customers' attitudes will change for the better, but this was above 70% elsewhere, and in Mexico and Germany it was more than 80%.

This is a small sample, but it caught my eye. Another way to look at the results, of course, is that UK companies were already on the responsible road – 31% say their 'green' priorities are unlikely to change as a result of COVID-19, more than in other countries. Perhaps they didn't need a pandemic to push them on this.

Whether businesses shift doesn't just come down to boards, or customer demand: many move in anticipation of regulation. This crisis has certainly made them think hard about an arguably more deadly one: climate change. “Do we rebuild what we had before?“ asked European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans (below right), launching the EU's green recovery plan. “Or do we seize the opportunity to restructure and create different and new jobs that can serve us for decades to come?“

The UK has its own green industrial revolution plan. According to prime minister Boris Johnson, we will soon be cooking breakfast using hydrogen, before driving an electric car to our 'green' job. Poppycock? Maybe not, but the government will need more than a wish list to get us there.

The week before the government announced its 10-point green plan, the National Audit Office (NAO) produced an analysis of how the government is shaping up against its ambition for ours to be the first generation that leaves the natural environment in a better state than it inherited. In short: not that well. Gareth Davies is head of the NAO. “It's now nine years since the government set this ambition and it still does not have the right framework to achieve it,“ he says.

The 25-year environment plan of 2018 put everything in one place, but the NAO notes that “it does not provide a clear and coherent set of objectives“, and that timescales are “varying and unclear“, with detailed strategies in place for just two (waste and clean air) of 10 goals. If the pace was sluggish pre-COVID-19, the NAO is justified in its concern about post-pandemic clarity. In November, the government is hosting COP26 in Glasgow, where negotiations will hone rules for carbon markets under the Paris Agreement – and yet at the time of writing, it seems conflicted between an emissions trading scheme that aligns with the EU's, and a carbon emissions tax.

Leaving the EU will also put the UK in the spotlight. Ministers have pledged to meet or exceed the EU's environmental protections and laws – but will they? The environment bill could be world leading. Experts are not worried that deregulation will become the default: there is far too much political capital invested in the government's green sheen. However, that doesn't mean the ties won't be loosened, or left to rot. “It's informalisation and stagnation we are most concerned about,“ Veerle Heyvaert, professor of law at the London School of Economics, told me recently.

“Slowly but surely humanity is taking the upper hand in the fight against the virus,“ Johnson wrote in the Financial Times on the day he launched his new green plan. Can the same be said for climate change – a crisis that crept up on the world, rather than jumping out of the shadows? The next few months will tell us more.

David Burrows is a researcher and freelance writer.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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