Beyond the pandemic: build a greener future



What should we do?

Build a greener

The pandemic is forcing us to change direction, to rethink what we do
and how we do it.

We ask our experts:
where should we go from here?

Build a greener future

by Dr Emily Shuckburgh OBE

It is crucial that recovery from the pandemic is shaped to support the responses to climate change and biodiversity loss if we hope to mitigate yet further global disaster, says Dr Emily Shuckburgh, Director of Cambridge Zero. Today (9 November 2020), Cambridge Zero launches A Blueprint for a Green Future to guide how the UK government can best achieve this.

As we enter a new national lockdown, we need to take this time to think about the months and years ahead.

This is a vital moment for the UK and for the world. We are dealing with a pandemic but we also need to take urgent action to prevent an even more destructive environmental future. How we choose to prioritise an economic and societal recovery will dramatically affect the outcomes of both for future generations.

The toll of COVID-19 on lives and livelihoods is immense, and still growing. Within the UK, societal as well as regional and intergenerational disparities are stark and have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

At the same time, we are confronted with the manifestations of climate change: ever more extreme heatwaves and wildfires around the world, the Arctic melting before our eyes, the planet’s rich biodiversity threatened by damaged habitats. Repeatedly, communities across the UK have experienced the devastation caused by flooding. It is believed that 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction over the coming decades.

“The COVID-19 crisis has sharpened our focus on how the UK can move beyond the pandemic while tackling the triple threats of social inequality, the destruction of nature and climate change.”

Dr Emily Shuckburgh

While the current status is bleak, this is the moment for courage and boldness of leadership; to reset our priorities and re-evaluate our relationships with each other and with the world that sustains us. This is our moment to imagine and then realise a future that is, simply, better – for everyone.

A blueprint for a greener future

Our work at Cambridge Zero, the University’s climate change initiative launched in 2019, is aimed at developing zero-carbon solutions that work for everyone and for the economy. To do this, we draw on the research and policy expertise of the Cambridge Zero Policy Forum – over 80 senior academics from across the University brought together by Cambridge Zero and the Centre for Science and Policy.

The COVID-19 crisis has sharpened our focus on how the UK can move beyond the pandemic while tackling the triple threats of social inequality, the destruction of nature and climate change.

Can, for instance, the economy and society be rebuilt by boosting productivity with resource-efficient innovations, improving land use policies and practices, and increasing sustainability and resilience? Can we embed some of the positive aspects of the behavioural changes that we have been forced to adopt over recent months, such as greater use of virtual communication platforms to avoid unnecessary travel?

With more lockdowns taking effect and increasing job losses, a topic on the minds of many is how to get people back to work. The great news is that the technologies and infrastructure required to transition to a zero-carbon world offer many new employment opportunities. Co-benefits of climate action with commercial opportunities provide an effective way to stimulate low-carbon, resource-efficient growth.

We have brought our ideas together in an ambitious new report to present a multidisciplinary perspective and a series of recommendations for policymakers and industry.

Covering the economy, a just transition, technology, infrastructure, nature, and opportunities for global leadership, A Blueprint for a Green Future outlines the complementary investments, policy commitments, institutional frameworks, and systems thinking that will provide security, strengthen the UK’s place in the world, and support collaborative global efforts to transition to a green future.

Where should we go from here?

A Blueprint for a Green Future sets out a comprehensive list of recommendations, from which the following selection is taken:

Attach clear, measurable environmental sustainability conditions to all COVID-19 recovery spending. Potential ‘green strings’ could vary by industry and may include conditioning interest rates on loans to emissions reductions targets consistent with net zero, air and water quality improvements, biodiversity targets, or other environmental outcomes.

Facilitate the creation of ‘green jobs’ to address rising unemployment, to transform the economy for a zero-carbon future and to restore nature, prioritising areas of high unemployment, labour market exclusion, and regions with the highest proportion of jobs that could be at risk in the transition to a net-zero economy.

Initiate a focused national research and development programme on zero-carbon energy generation and storage technologies to target improving performance, efficiency, reliability, and cost, and to underpin the competitiveness of the UK zero-carbon industry by building on existing UK strengths. An example is solar, where the UK has led developments of lead halide perovskite solar cells, which could transform the photovoltaics industry if combined with other UK strengths in providing key component technologies such as solar glass.

Adopt a whole-system, whole-life view of infrastructure and the built environment.

Create a new National Nature Service to employ many tens of thousands of people and restore our land, coastlines, oceans and economy for a greener, more prosperous future.

Promote international green, just recovery cooperation through new economic agreements. Shape and implement sustainable development commitments from existing and new trade, investment, scientific cooperation and technology transfer treaties, and leverage economic relationships to more effectively enable a green future.

What’s next?

In the years following the COVID-19 pandemic, economic growth will be a high priority for all countries. We believe that a zero-carbon world is not just attainable, but that the transition to net-zero emissions can significantly contribute to this recovery.

Focusing on a sustainable, inclusive and resilient economic recovery strategy will position the UK as a credible global leader – bolstering both its leadership of the G7 and its aim to deliver a successful and ambitious COP26 climate conference in 2021.

Download the full report: A Blueprint for a Green Future - Multidisciplinary report on a green recovery from COVID-19 by the Cambridge Zero Policy Forum

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Dr Emily Shuckburgh OBE is Director of Cambridge Zero and a Reader in Environmental Data Science at the Department of Computer Science and Technology. She leads the UKRI Centre for Doctoral Training on the Application of AI to the study of Environmental Risks. Her research interests include the dynamics of the atmosphere, oceans and climate, and environmental data science. Until April 2019, she led a UK national research programme on the Southern Ocean and its role in climate (ORCHESTRA), and was head of the Data Science Group at British Antarctic Survey. She is co-author with HRH The Prince of Wales and Tony Juniper of the Ladybird Book on Climate Change. She is also a Fellow of Darwin College.

Artwork: Balvir Friers
Series Editor: Louise Walsh

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