By Chief Executive of RSGS, Mike Robinson

According to this week’s State of the Nation survey, 68% of Scots now see the climate crisis as an “immediate and urgent” problem. Perhaps not unsurprisingly given the unprecedented school strikes that took to our streets in 2019, it was found that this concern was shared most widely amongst those aged 16-24 years old, but it was a majority concern across all age groups. It is reassuring that most people have not lost sight of this global issue despite the immediate concern around COVID-19.

Our daily lives have been turned upside down by the pandemic, of course, and, quite rightly, attention has been focused on tackling this most imminent of threats: ensuring public safety, providing basics, and limiting the loss of life. But the pandemic is not the only crisis we face. We have been told by scientists that a pandemic was only a matter of time, we just didn’t know the timescale.

But if we had known five years ago that a pandemic was going to happen, I wonder what would we have done better to prepare ourselves?

Climate change is also scientifically predictable. We have been warned about it for the past forty years, but it is now becoming urgent. And it will have a far more profound impact on our lives than a single virus. But arguably we do know the timescale. So what more should we be doing to prepare and respond to this emergency?

This is a very real worry: the world’s governments have borrowed vast amounts of money to solve this pandemic, which it will take decades to pay back. The OECD forecast that the advanced economies would be forced to increase debt by, on average, an extra 18.6% of GDP in the short term to address the COVID-19 pandemic. In the UK, this has already pushed our national debt to 100.9% of the entire economy (our annual GDP) for the first time since 1963.

And yet, this is the decade in which we have to act on climate – as it is our only real chance to limit climate change to below 2 degrees Centigrade. According to the Stern Report 2006, and more recently the Government’s scientific advisors, the UKCCC, we need around 2% of GDP annually to solve climate change – or we risk spending closer to 20% dealing with its consequences in future years. But we have never borrowed on this scale for climate change and we might not be able to afford to borrow at this scale again for another generation. So it is vital that we ensure that this money needed to solve the COVID-19 crisis is carefully directed to those projects that also tackle (and at scale) these other existential threats. 

To this end, we recently convened a Climate Emergency Summit to conceive, develop and promote solutions and projects that simultaneously address the pandemic and help mitigate carbon emissions. This event, which received contributions from cross-sectoral experts from more than 40 organisations, provided a space for motivated people to come together in a safe and open workshop environment. It ensured the collective expertise of the participants could highlight purposeful actions and good practice examples, and, ultimately, influence policy making at the highest level.

On Tuesday 16th September, I gave evidence to a session with the Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform committee, feeding back on the results of our summit and looking at ways we might emerge from the COVID-19 crisis to ensure we also tackle climate change. There is, for example, a big onus on infrastructure development as a key investment to help kick start the economy again, but this is only going to make sense if it also promotes low carbon living. If it simply reinforces our over obsession with driving everywhere, embeds unsustainable practices, and uses vast quantities of Portland cement to deliver it, we are creating more of a problem, and exacerbating the future climate crisis at the altar of short-term thinking. Because of the vast quantities of borrowed money, and the immediacy of the climate crisis, this genuinely might be our last chance to bring about a step change in tackling this issue. And what a silver lining that would be to this awful pandemic – that we emerge from one crisis with the foresight, confidence and optimism to tackle the climate crisis too.

The 12 key action points from our Climate Emergency Summit on COVID-19 recovery are detailed below.