What we need from the coronavirus recovery plan

Head of Policy Mike Childs explains why social justice must be at the heart of our recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
Picture of Mike Childs
By Mike Childs    |      Published:  09 Jun 2020    |      5 minute read

Last year my colleagues and I published a bold Climate Action Plan, detailing the key areas government need to invest and focus on to tackle the climate and ecological emergency and protect people and planet from further destruction.

But 2020 has brought with it a fresh global crisis in the form of the coronavirus pandemic, upending our lives and livelihoods. As with many crises, the pandemic is disproportionately affecting working-class and BAME communities, and we risk widening inequalities if we don’t put social justice at the heart of our recovery plans.

So what does a socially just "green" recovery look like? 

Access to green space

Pre-pandemic, we were campaigning to double tree cover across the UK. Not only does increased tree cover and good quality green space help tackle climate breakdown (by sucking carbon out of the air), it also benefits wildlife and our wellbeing. But lockdown – and countless images of over-crowded urban parks – has cast that need in a new light.

Our population is desperately lacking access to good quality green space. A new study by the Office for National Statistics reveals 1 in 8 households in Great Britain lack access to a private or shared garden, rising to 1 in 5 in London. And in England, white people are nearly 4 times as likely as black people to have access to outdoor space at home, whether it be a private or shared garden, a patio or a balcony.

Increasingly the NHS recognises the importance of green space and is prescribing time in parks to aid wellbeing. But for those without access to green space, lockdown is putting an even greater strain on mental health.

Now's the time to transform some roads and car parks into communal green spaces in nature-deprived urban spaces, and green all our streets with trees and planters. If we don’t do this now when the problem is at its worst, when will we?

Transport that works for people and planet

Vans, lorries and petrol or diesel cars are all bad for the planet. They increase air pollution and are a major cause of the UK’s greenhouse gases. The poorest communities suffer the worst air pollution, particularly young children and young adults, due to proximity to inner city roads. And yet the pollution is caused by those living in more affluent areas: almost 50% of low-income families don’t have access to a car (and the proportion of women that don’t have access is double that of men).

Unfortunately, alternative transport is seriously lacking. Over the last decade the cost of public transport has increased much faster than that of driving, with bus fares rising on average by two-thirds since 2009 (compared to motoring which has only increased by one-third in the same time). Leicester has seen the greatest decrease in bus usage, with a 30% decline since 2009/10.

And many are (rightly) put off cycling in urban areas, due to a lack of safe, segregated bike lanes.

Transforming how we travel, with segregated bike lanes and clean, affordable public transport, is key if we’re to deliver on climate goals and protect people’s lungs. Never has this been more important as we face the twin challenges of the respiratory disease COVID-19 and the climate emergency.

Fixing fuel poverty

The UK has a notoriously old and leaky housing stock, and more than 2.5 million households in the UK are in fuel poverty. The sad reality is that this number will increase substantially if the coronavirus pandemic extends into the autumn and winter.

Someone or a household is in fuel poverty when they can't afford the cost of adequately heating their own home.

More than 2.5 million households in the UK are in fuel poverty (most are in England, with 155,000 in Wales and 131,000 in Northern Ireland, although the countries measure fuel poverty differently). The council area in England with the highest level is Newham in London where 16.1% of households are in fuel poverty.

Insulating the UK’s homes and switching to eco-friendly heating won't just help end fuel poverty. It's essential to curbing climate breakdown and it'll also create jobs in every area of the UK, as developing renewable energy to power our homes is dependant on the creation of more jobs for the sector. This must be a priority for the government’s forthcoming coronavirus recovery plan.

"Green" behaviour requires a more equal world

As my colleague Clare Oxborrow eloquently explains, government orders and technology alone are not going to stop the worst of climate breakdown or restore nature – we also need people to embrace pro-environmental behaviour change. People’s willingness to behave differently for the greater good is incredibly important, as shown by the pandemic. But that willingness is dependant on society being equal and fair…

One of the most important books I’ve read in my 30 years at Friends of the Earth is "The Spirit Level" by Richardson and Kate Pickett. The book pulls together an extraordinarily wide range of data sets to demonstrate how more unequal societies and communities had lower levels of trust, educational attainment, innovation, social mobility, and life expectancy while seeing greater use of drugs and violence. Importantly, it shows that pro-environmental behaviours, such as recycling, were higher in societies where citizens were treated equally. In other words, in fairer societies there's greater willingness to come together for the common good.

That's why it's important we promote solutions that reduce inequalities (income, health and environmental), and not just push for green measures.

Why fixing climate and reducing inequalities aren't mutually exclusive

Fairness and addressing environmental injustices need to be, and always have been, central to our campaign agenda. The need for a more equal world is why we speak out on issues that aren’t obviously "green", for example standing against racism or supporting the Me Too movement. It’s also why we will speak out against policies that increase inequalities, such as unfair taxes, and for policies that reduce them, such as increased taxes on millionaires and corporate tax dodgers.

The idea that reducing inequalities and fixing the planet go hand-in-hand shouldn’t be seen as surprising or new, it’s just common sense. Back in 1992, when I started at Friends of the Earth, the world came together to agree this direction of travel at the Rio Earth Summit, agreeing a global action plan for sustainable development.

Many of the solutions I’ve identified above – green space, warm homes, more cycling – are better for people as well as planet. What's more, they're not unrealistic. Government can, if it wants, adopt the above solutions without plunging the country into chaos.

Local authority support is key

However, a green and fair recovery can only be achieved by working with councils at a local level. After all, they have a unique knowledge of their local areas, businesses, and places, as well as providing the services and regulatory functions that could drive down carbon emissions. 

To help local authorities deliver meaningful climate action, the government must direct existing funding streams (eg, for infrastructure and training) to a green recovery, and give them additional funding and powers. Alongside partner organisations, and based on direct input from local councils, we have created a blueprint that would enable councils to accelerate climate action and a green recovery in their local areas.  

Friends of the Earth will also resist the further weakening of councils’ ability to consult their communities and shape places to be healthy and low carbon environments, for example through government’s removal of key planning controls or by massive investment in new roads.

The blueprint calls on the government to launch a joined-up, multi-billion pound place-based low carbon infrastructure fund, support local programmes to reskill and retrain workers for the net-zero economy, and give local authorities sufficient resources to accelerate building retrofits to achieve better energy efficiency at scale.

It also advocates speeding up the delivery of the £800m Nature for Climate Fund to restore nature and boost community health and wellbeing, properly funding the parks and open green spaces managed by councils, and backing local authorities to increase home working, walking, and cycling provision. 

Empowering councils to act on the climate and nature crises will bring many co-benefits including tackling fuel poverty, creating jobs, and boosting health and wellbeing via more active travel and access to green space.

If the past few months have taught us anything, it is that major change can be delivered quickly. With your help, we'll campaign hard to ensure that the government’s coronavirus Recovery Plan, and local authority recovery plans, aren't just green, but place social equality at their heart to ensure a fairer, more sustainable future for all.

This article was originally published by The Ecologist on 9 June 2020.