A fair and sustainable recovery

Yes, the sustainability agenda can facilitate economic recovery. But a fair recovery involves reimagining not just reopening, and society not just the economy, writes Oisín Coghlan, Director of Friends of the Earth.

Ireland’s 2010 climate targets fell due during the last recession. And for most of the preceding decade it looked like we would massively overshoot them. Giving speeches around that time I used to remark that we only met our targets by crashing the economy, and I would raise a laugh by adding one thing we could surely all agree on was that we should avoid having to crash the economy again at the last minute to meet our 2020 targets. Little did we know.

In the event, even shutting down the economy in an unprecedented way this year wasn’t enough to meet our 2020 targets. Ireland is one of just five EU countries whose emissions are higher than in 1990 and the only one of those where emissions were rising before the Covid-19 lockdown. The Government conspicuously failed to decouple economic activity from emissions during the last recovery. One legitimate excuse was that they had no money and very constrained access to credit. That’s what’s different this time. The Government can borrow at historically low interest rates, and across the EU and the world there is a new ideological consensus that an active state is now essential to protect lives and livelihoods.

And there is much to do. Retrofitting 75,000 homes a year, the least we need to do, would create 20,000 jobs. There is also huge pent-up demand for solar at household, community and commercial scale because of a lack policy support to date. In May 2020, solar provided the UK with 11 per cent of its electricity compared to 0 per cent in Ireland. Investment in much needed public transport infrastructure can also create thousands of jobs over the next decade.

So yes, the sustainability agenda can facilitate economic recovery. But there is something bigger in play now. The interplay of Covid-19 social distancing in cities with the sustainability agenda is just one example of how the recovery has to be about reimagining not just reopening, and about society not just the economy. For decades, cyclists and pedestrians have been losing the battle for road space with private cars. Suddenly the need to allow space for social distancing outside shops, cafes and restaurants has transformed that debate.

Civil society organizations are talking about the imperative of a ‘just recovery’ or a ‘fair recovery’, not just a return to business-as-usual. The climate movement is increasingly aware that, as we decouple economic activity from emissions, we must actively work so as not to decouple climate action from social, gender and racial justice. The shutdown revealed serious structural problems and cultural assumptions about how we provide childcare and eldercare in this country, a fragile patchwork of private for-profit operators and unpaid and undervalued family carers. Healthcare was revolutionised overnight and surely, we can’t now countenance taking another decade to implement Sláintecare?

The shutdown also forced many of us to slow down and reconnected us with nature. The 21st century has seen us increasingly living and working at warp speed. An always-on work culture ‘balanced’ by social media immersion and long-haul flights for adventure holidays. Many are now examining how that warped our relationship with ourselves, others and the planet.

The New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Arden, has spoken of the potential of a four-day work week. Remote working, at home or in local hubs, will cut commuting and give greater flexibility to parents, carers and indeed people in general. 

Covid-19 has tested us all, albeit in different ways and Ireland has responded with solidarity and care. As we recover, we must nurture that in everything we do, from childcare and eldercare to selfcare and planet care.


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