An Interview with Mike Robinson and Professor Dave Reay

With the current pandemic, efforts have quite rightly been focussed on the fight against coronavirus, and the social upheaval that this unprecedented situation has caused. However, 2020 was meant to be a year for sustainability, with UN COPs on Biodiversity targets and climate action planned in Kunming and Glasgow respectively, and thus 2020 was a year for optimism around these crises. But whilst circumstance has upended this, most notably following the inevitable postponement of the Glasgow Climate COP set for November, these issues have not gone away.

To reflect on the current situation, and cognisant that this week marks one year since First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a Climate Emergency in Scotland, we sat down with Mike Robinson, RSGS Chief Executive, and Professor Dave Reay, Executive Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, to discuss their thoughts on the current situation and its implication for the sustainability agenda.

Q. What impact is the current pandemic having on our progress towards a more sustainable future?

Mike: “Although coronavirus is quite rightly dominating our thoughts and immediate concerns, the climate emergency hasn't gone away. Scientifically, a pandemic was highly predictable, although nobody knew the timescale that it might take place. Scientifically, climate change is also high predictable, but we actually do have an idea of the timescale, and the action we take in the next five to ten years will largely dictate how successfully we tackle this issue.”

Dave: “Global temperatures and sea levels will continue to rise, extreme weather events will get even more extreme. Though the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow (COP26) has been postponed, this must not mean action on climate change is also postponed. With every delayed action or misspent dollar of economic stimulus the risks posed by climate change grow further. If the government recovery packages being put in place around the world today are not green, then the future looks blacker than ever. Yet many are overtly recognising the need for sustainability and resilience to be embedded in such investments, to avoid the mistakes made after the 2008 financial crisis and think long term. These are bleak times for us all, but Glasgow, and COP26 when it happens, can still be the port in this global storm we all need.”

Q. The impacts of coronavirus have been enormous: all-encompassing and entirely unprecedented. As a society, what can we learn from these challenging times?

Mike: “The current 'shut down' serves as a reminder that many of the things we take for granted are more valuable – and maybe more precarious – than we had previously recognised. The lesson here is the importance of early action – and this is more true with respect to climate change than coronavirus. I also think the Covid-19 lock down has exposed some of the frailties in our social structures, our economic system and our environment, and I hope it has reminded us of their importance and that we can ensure we build more robust and healthy systems when we start to emerge from lockdown.”

Dave: “We are learning brutal lessons about the fragility of support systems for human civilisation, like food security and health care, every day. Making them more resilient to the Covid-19 crisis today can help them better weather the climate storm tomorrow.”

Q. Wednesday 28th April 2020 marked one year since Scotland’s First Minister announced a Climate Emergency – a world-leading statement of intent; but, did has this deceleration made a tangible difference, and what’s the message looking ahead?

Mike: "The announcement of a climate emergency was a response to the school strikes, and undoubtedly helped focus the minds of business leaders, local authorities and Government on the necessity and urgency of climate action. However, having seen what an emergency response looks like under coronavirus, it is difficult to point at any specific progress beyond this awareness raising. The 2019 Emissions Target Act was a response to the 2016 Paris Agreement, not the climate strikes. So, a year on, we still await a tangible reaction from Government and society."

Dave: "The declaration was crucial in grabbing attention and focussing minds, but the proof of its impact in actually cutting emissions is still to be seen. One of the most encouraging signs is the recognition of the climate emergency across a huge range of institutions – including by my own University, Edinburgh – and the commitments to tackle climate change that have come with this. Creation of the Climate Emergency Response Group (CERG) has also been a really positive development here in Scotland, giving Government the kind of critical and broad-based advice that is needed if the transition to 'net zero' is to be rapid, evidence-based and fair."

Q. Is the economic impact of coronavirus an opportunity to prioritise green issues in the ‘rebuild’?

Mike: "Although it feels a long way off, the disruption of coronavirus will eventually settle down. But if we simply return to 'Business as Usual' we will have done nothing to avert a potentially far more severe crisis. Since this disruption requires significant reinvention to get society and business up and running again, it would be a massive missed opportunity if we didn't ensure that we rebuilt it in a more just and environmentally sustainable way. To help inform this process, the RSGS will bring together leaders in an online summit in May from across industry sectors, and national and local Government, to help identify how we can best rebuild society post coronavirus."

Dave: "Public health and food supply systems are under tremendous strain right across our planet. A global green recovery would help ensure such fragile lifelines for humanity are strengthened, that natural ecosystems are protected, and that the fossil-fuelled norms of 'Before Covid' are consigned to the history books. Climate change has not gone away – it remains the greatest threat multiplier on Earth – but if our leaders can show one ounce of the courage currently being shown by our health workers then there is a real chance we can realise a more sustainable, equitable and resilient future for us all."