Friends of the Earth last year published a bold Climate Action Plan detailing the key areas that the UK Government need to invest in and focus on, putting the climate and ecological emergency front and centre.
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 social justice is not at the heart of recovery plans.
So, what does a socially just “green” recovery look like?
Pre-pandemic, Friends of the Earth was campaigning to double tree cover across the UK. Not only does increased tree cover and quality green space help in the fight against 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 in access to quality green space. A new study by the Office for National Statistics reveals one in eight households in Great Britain lack access to a private or shared garden, rising to one in five in London.
In England, white people are nearly four 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 when the problem is at its worst, when will we?
Vans, lorries and petrol or diesel cars increase air pollution and are a major cause of the UK’s greenhouse gases. The poorest communities suffer the worst air pollution, particularly among 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 percent 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, while the cost of motoring has only increased by one-third in the same time. Leicester has seen the greatest decrease in bus usage, with a 30 percent decline since 2009/10.
And many are understandably 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 Covid-19 and the climate emergency.
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.
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 will require more jobs in the sector.
This is the kind of policy that makes practical sense and should be a big part of the government’s forthcoming coronavirus recovery plan.
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 dependent on society being equal and fair.
It’s been shown that more unequal societies and communities have lower levels of trust, educational attainment, innovation, social mobility, and life expectancy, and see more violence and greater use of drugs. But pro-environmental behaviours, such as recycling, are higher in societies where people 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 alone.
Fairness and addressing environmental injustices need to be, and always have been, central to Friends of the Earth’s campaigning agenda. The need for a more equal world is why we speak out on issues that don’t appear to be 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.
Many of the solutions identified above – green space, warm homes, more cycling – are better for people as well as planet. What’s more, they’re realistic and easily able to be delivered. Government can, if it wants, adopt these measures with their immediate benefits.
The old normal destroyed the climate and wrecked precious ecosystems. We have the opportunity to make sure that the recovery means the next normal is for the benefit of people, and not profit.
If we are going to build back better out of this crisis into a new normal that works for people, the government’s coronavirus Recovery Plan, and local authority recovery plans, must be not just green, but place social equality at their heart.
Mike Childs is head of policy at Friends of the Earth.
Image: D12 Paris marches for climate justice as COP21 concludes. John Englart, Flickr.