UCL News


Opinion: How can we avoid a 'dirty' recovery from Covid-19?

14 December 2020

A transition to a post-carbon global economy will inevitably be highly disruptive and steps must be taken to ensure it doesn’t disproportionately affect disadvantaged communities, say Research Assistant Julia Kreienkamp and Dr Tom Pegram (both UCL Global Governance Institute).

Julia Kreienkamp and Dr Tom Pegram
  • The pandemic should serve as an impetus for a just and socially inclusive energy transition.
  • Many green policies put into place so far benefit wealthier parts of society, risking further social division.
  • A new policy briefing explores the promise and shortcomings of the just transition agenda.
  • The window for putting these plans in place is closing rapidly.

The implications of the Covid-19 pandemic for climate governance are hotly debated. While some fear that we are in for a 'dirty recovery', with the economic fallout from the pandemic crowding out climate-related concerns, others have expressed hope that the crisis could mark a 'historic turning point' for more ambitious action.

The pandemic serves as a stark reminder that human wellbeing is closely tied to the health of the planet. Like climate change, the emergence of infectious diseases is, at least partly, driven by our growth-addicted economic systems, with the risk of further pandemics heightened by global warming and environmental degradation.

Beyond these common and mutually reinforcing drivers, Covid-19 and climate change also share sobering parallels in terms of impact: both disproportionately affect already disadvantaged communities, with the costs of mitigation measures rarely falling on the broadest shoulders. The pandemic could – and should – serve as a powerful impetus for redoubling efforts on ensuing a just climate transition agenda: one which ensures that decarbonization strategies are both ecologically sustainable and socially inclusive.

Covid-19 has demonstrated powerfully that unmanaged global systemic disruption tends to worsen socio-economic and health inequalities. Ethnic minorities, poor communities, and other vulnerable groups are not only at higher risk of death from the virus, but have also been disproportionally affected by hastily implemented lockdown policies which have resulted in significant job losses and financial hardship. Women in particular have been hit hard by the pandemic, carrying the greater load of unpaid labour in the household and enjoying reduced access to paid work more generally. The uneven impact of the pandemic is even starker on the global level, with decades of progress on development in everything from poverty to health and the economy wiped out in weeks.

Unsurprisingly, the communities most vulnerable to pandemic health risks and associated second-order effects also tend to be those most negatively affected by climate change and/or decarbonisation policies. The latter group includes, for example, coal miners or those employed at airports and in the aviation industry more generally. Meanwhile, many of the green policies adopted during the pandemic, from low-traffic neighbourhoods to green investment schemes, have skewed towards benefiting wealthier communities, threatening to deepen social divisions and polarise debate further on policy responses to both the pandemic and the climate emergency. Importantly, communities that are socio-economically disadvantaged often find themselves politically marginalised, making it less likely that their voices will be heard by policy-makers.

When it comes to climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic is the canary in the mineshaft. A transition to a post-carbon global economy, on the scale required, will inevitably be highly disruptive – and for this reason will have to be inclusive to ensure sustained support by the general populace. A new policy briefing, produced by the COP26 Universities Network, explores the promise and shortcomings of the just transition agenda to deliver an ecologically sustainable and socially more equitable future.

Just transition concerns have risen to prominence following the adoption of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which reflects a recognition that global climate targets must be achieved in a manner that is 'both fast and fair'. On the international level, the International Labour Organization has taken the lead in developing frameworks and guidelines for implementing just transition principles. The European Green Deal could establish the first supranational financial support mechanisms for regions less able to adjust to a post-carbon future.

However, just transition policies risk being overly focused on job creation, without proper consideration of what kind of jobs are being generated, how secure they are and who has access to them. The pandemic has served as a reminder that not all jobs are created equal. Many of the workers who have proven essential during the Covid-19 crisis are employed in low-wage, low-skill, and low-prestige occupations under precarious conditions. While clean and renewable energy sectors generate new job opportunities for a post-carbon future, it is important to recognise that not all green jobs are decent jobs and that employment in these sectors tends to reflect existing inequalities along class, race and gender.

A narrow focus on employment also risks advancing a simplistic “jobs versus climate” frame, pitting winners and losers of the transition against each other and possibly fuelling concerns – similar to those voiced during the Covid-19 pandemic – that “the cure is worse than the disease”. Conversely, presenting decarbonization as an all-inclusive “win-win” project threatens to de-politicise the transition and silence those most affected by its negative effects.

The COP26 Universities Network briefing calls for a broader, more nuanced approach to enabling just transitions, combining insights from climate, energy, and environmental justice and also taking into account the global political economy dimensions of transitional processes. Ultimately, this broader understanding of what a just transition entails encapsulate a commitment “to live in a different type of society, not simply a low-carbon version of the current one”.

So how do we get there? While there is no silver bullet approach to charting ambitious and socially inclusive decarbonisation pathways, the briefing identifies a number of policy mechanisms that are necessary to ensure that the costs and benefits of climate action are shared in a fair and equitable manner. This includes targeted governmental and private sector interventions aimed at supporting, retraining and redeploying affected workers but also, for example, a decentralisation and democratisation of energy systems. Crucially, efforts must be made to enhance transparency and inclusion in policy-making processes, including through platforms specifically aimed at providing the most affected communities with real access to policy-making.

Just transition agendas must also incorporate a global, whole-economy perspective that is conscious of the interdependencies across policy goals – such as addressing climate change and infectious disease outbreaks – while being mindful of potential conflict and unintended consequences. Importantly, while the negative effects of climate change and mitigation measures are experienced locally, the difference in vulnerability to those effects is often globally produced. Just like Covid-19, climate change is a quintessential global, systemic problem and effective response will require unprecedented levels of international collaboration.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has triggered a rash of nationalist retreat, rather than a heightened sense of collective responsibility and solidarity. As a global community, we have an opportunity to learn from the successes, but also from the failures, inadequacies and unintended consequences of local, national and global responses to Covid-19. However, when it comes to implementing those lessons to avert catastrophic global heating, the window for decisive action is rapidly closing.

This article was originally published on World Economic Forum Agenda Blog on 14 December 2020.



L-R: Julia Kreienkamp, Dr Tom Pegram