“A green recovery, after the Covid-19 crisis, is possible”
Interview with Fiona Harvey, award-winning environment journalist for the Guardian.
The Covid-19 outbreak represents a point of change where we, as a society, need to look into the future by designing different approaches to our economic development and foster a transition towards a more sustainable way of living. Fiona Harvey, The Guardian environment correspondent, has many precious insights to share about how we can communicate, discuss and look into these two connected crises.
I think that these crises are very much related. I think that, from the response to the coronavirus crisis, people have seen what happens when we face a very big natural – and in some ways predictable, and predicted – but disastrous impact. We have known about the potential for pandemics for many years, but largely ignored the warnings for a long time until this hit us., Human history is a history of pandemics…and nevertheless, people were surprised and unprepared. So, the lesson to learn is why we need to be better at preparing for foreseeable shocks. That’s very relevant to the climate crisis of course.
Looking at the responses to the coronavirus crisis, we see what’s possible in terms of responses to the climate crisis. It is perfectly possible to shut down sectors of industry and activities in the interests of a much greater need – the need for us to have healthy lives.
A climate emergency could be even worse than the current emergency. If we don’t want to face it, we will have to take action. Science has been telling us for years that fossil fuels will have to become a thing of the past — something that previously people found unthinkable. After coronavirus, I don’t think that is a taboo anymore..
This is also the moment where we can try and change things and work towards the zero emission goal. The EU Green Deal goes into that direction, the funding scheme set up to relaunch the economy could also be pivotal to this change. And yet, on the other side, we also see some forces gaining a new traction and declaring that the economy has to come first. There was something similar in the past: in the early 2000s environmental policies were being discussed and there was a certain momentum around the need to deal with climate change and with a sustainable use of natural resources. After the 2008 financial crisis the focus became once again the survival of the economic system. Are we risking something similar here?
First of all, the most important thing is that we have to be very careful not to present this as some ‘great opportunity’. The coronavirus crisis has been a real disaster. Lives and freedom are affected. Those impacts are still being felt around the world!
We must not pretend that this is a positive thing: it’s not, it’s a dreadful occurrence, and some of those impacts will go on for a long time.
But this can be, indeed, a point of change. Whether we want it or not, radical change has happened. And many more changes are needed in future to bring back people to work, to take care of those people whose health conditions, not only from coronavirus but also from other illnesses, have been hampered by this crisis, to recover the economy. We need to find ways to bring everyone back to normal life.
While we are changing those things, rather than just get back on our feet as quickly as possible, we should pause, take a breath and think how can we do things better, how can we put ourselves back on the right track without creating a new crisis, a climate crisis.
The good thing is that we know how to do: a recent study by Oxford University produced by highly reputable economists who surveyed over 200 economic and financial experts and leaders from G20 countries, shows that we will have more benefits in the short and long term if we put people back to work in a ‘green way’ after the coronavirus crisis. We can create jobs that improve our energy efficiency, by developing green infrastructures. Broadband, for instance, allows people to work from home. Fostering cycling or use of electric vehicles will change the way we move around.
We have a blueprint here, the basis for a green recovery. But we need to seize this quickly, otherwise things will just go back to normal. We saw it happening with the 2008 financial crisis: greenhouse gas emissions dropped as economic activities plunged but rebounded very quickly afterwards, because people went back to the pre-crisis high fossil fuel infrastructure to try and make up for economic losses. It is perfectly possible to have a green recovery this time, it would be economically beneficial as well as being beneficial to people’s health and their lives generally.
How can journalism play a role in all of this? Do you see the media acting in this new scenario?
Journalists’ role is very important: if we’re going to have a green recovery, people need to know what that means, the message needs to be out there that this is a real possibility. In the midst of coronavirus, the reporting initially rightly focused on what was happening, on the virus itself and how it spreads and works on people. Then it shifted on the lockdown and its impacts. Now that we are moving to a new phase, reporting needs to move too, looking into what’s going to happen next while we try to go back to normal. Not to old normal, though, but to a different kind of normal, where people have healthier lives, and we’re dealing with the climate crisis.
Reporters need to talk with the experts and bring in their writing the possibilities that are there for governments, for individuals and for businesses.
Is the decision to move the Glasgow COP26 to 2021 going to affect the ability to keep a high interest and attention on the climate crisis? How can journalists make sure that the climate negotiations and discussions are not going to be forgotten?
It’s difficult because there’s no hiatus normally. COPs have been going on since 1992, it’s an annual process: it takes place almost at the same time each year, and then there is a full year to get prepared for the following one. This 2-year gap allows for more preparation but, from the point of view of journalists, it also elicits the risk of running out of momentum.
I think that both the UN and the British government, as host of COP26, need to try and keep up that momentum by whatever means they can — a series of virtual meetings, a series of reports or staging posts along the way on how we get from here to COP26 and so on. That would be incredibly useful to give journalists something to report on.
But journalists themselves have more time now to look at all the different aspects of COP26, to explain it in the context of the recovery from the coronavirus crisis. I really think it’s up to journalists to keep all this momentum and this pressure and to tease out these links between climate and coronavirus crises and how we are dealing with them.
If you had to give some advice to younger journalists on how to keep doing this, what would you say?
I think that it is a great deal for younger journalists to do, especially with all these younger activists now so involved. Last year at the COP in Madrid, Greta Thunberg and the other young activists were extremely effective in talking and coming forward. Rightly so, because it is their world that’s going to be impacted by climate change beyond recognition, they’re the ones with the biggest stake and therefore they have a right to ask what on earth are the adults doing about it. Young people are going to have to live through the decisions taken by old politicians and leaders and business people who are not going to be around for much longer: they want them to make the right choices.
I think this has even more resonance after the coronavirus crisis. Young people, albeit not being generally at high risk from their health point of view, have had their education disrupted, their lives disrupted, their socialization disrupted, their communities disrupted by it. They made sacrifices to assist and protect older people. It does seem that perhaps the older generation could give something back to them by sorting out the climate crisis which will have a dreadful impact on the lives of all young people.