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We need to get the post Covid-19 lockdown actions right

Jason Torrance, UK100 Partnership convener

The social distancing and resulting lockdowns put in place to tackle Covid-19 are likely to cause the biggest drop in emissions ever recorded.

Analysts estimate worldwide carbon pollution will plunge 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 taken as we move out of lockdown that will define our ability to tackle wider global challenges such as climate change and the need to build socially-just economic prosperity.

The current crisis may, of course, only temporarily cut emissions.

Once shuttered factories reopen, commuters get back into their cars and flights once again take to the air, little will have changed in the structure of the global economy – and progress towards net-zero will likely be as slow as ever as air pollution returns to city streets.

Unless there is a concerted effort by governments to ensure this does not happen, our current global tragedy could sow the seeds for the next one.

As we have seen with the spread of Covid-19, no problem exists in isolation.

While the UK has been brought to a near standstill, with road travel plummeting by as much as 73% as a result of the lockdown, there is no certainty in what happens when the lockdown is lifted.

With a Covid-19 vaccine seemingly some way off it’s likely there will be a sharp rise in car travel post lockdown at the expense of public transport in a bid to maintain social distancing.

The impact post lockdown from purchasing decisions made by fleet managers as well as the spending decisions of individuals, potentially on cheaper second-hand cars, could have a profound and devastating impact.

For our wider economy the post-pandemic outlook remains extremely uncertain due to the unknown duration and severity of lockdown controls and doubts over the shape of the recovery.

Analysis by the International Monetary Fund has resulted in it slashing its 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.

Along with all sectors of our economy, car manufacturers in the UK are being hit hard.

With factory lockdowns into mid-May expected to cost UK car makers £8.2 billion, it is hard to imagine how things will return to what we once thought of as normal.

Covid-19 is also impacting local councils.

At the time of writing two – Liverpool City Council and Windsor and Maidenhead Council – are on the verge of declaring bankruptcy due to the expense of tackling Covid-19 in addition to a loss in revenue from tourism, parking and other forms of income.

Although hard-pressed, and focused on prioritising local responses to the pandemic, some councils are also taking innovative actions to rethink how public space is used in the absence of motor traffic.

Brighton and Hove council set a precedent for other UK towns and cities at the end of April by being the first to close off a major road to allow local people to get their daily exercise in safety (while adhering to social distancing rules).

Further afield, cities around the world are now beginning to take the lead in post-coronavirus planning, with a raft of environmental initiatives being rolled out in places from Bogotá to Barcelona 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 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 begins to plot a course out of lockdown and towards a post Covid-19 new norm, the opportunity must be seized to protect jobs and safeguard the future while paying off debts created by emergency spending on the NHS and 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 and home upgrades.

On the global stage, at least, leaders remain resolute on the need for emergency responses to align with bold action to tackle the climate emergency.

Speaking at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, a virtual meeting in late April of more than 30 governments on the climate emergency, António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General, urged Governments to act for future generations: “Where taxpayers’ money is used to rescue businesses, it must be creating green jobs and sustainable and inclusive growth. It must not be bailing out outdated, polluting, carbon-intensive industries.”

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