New Challenges for a Just Transition? COVID-19 and Green Pathways to Recovery

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This blog sets out recent developments in approaches to tackling climate change and explores some of the emerging thinking about how economic and societal recovery from the COVID-19 crisis can support decarbonisation.

What a difference a year makes

Just under a year ago the First Minister declared a climate emergency.

Since then, the Scottish Government has set a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target for 2045, focused on the climate crisis in its budget, and the Just Transition Commission has made interim recommendations for “growing an inclusive, net-zero economy”.

Decarbonisation has been made the primary mission of the Scottish National Investment Bank, and last September Glasgow was chosen to host COP26, the most significant United Nations climate change conference since the landmark Paris Agreement in 2015, and the largest summit that the UK has ever hosted.

The world’s eyes, it seemed, were trained on Scotland’s plan to decarbonise and transform society and the economy before the middle of the century.

However, the immediate crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented slowing of the economy, and an equally unprecedented level of UK and Scottish Government intervention.

Subsequently, short-term changes have been made to Scottish and international timetables for tackling the climate crisis.

The great disruption

In February 2018, the Scottish Government published its Climate Change Plan.  Known as the CCP, this document set out proposals and policies for how Scotland intended to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions out to 2032 (against 1990 levels).

Following the adoption of the net-zero target, and testing interim targets of 75% by 2030 and 90% by 2040, the First Minister undertook to update the CCP.

This was expected to be published on 30 April 2020. Four parliamentary committees were gearing up to scrutinise new commitments in crucial areas such as heating and insulating buildings, transport, agriculture, and land use. This scrutiny has now been postponed, with the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform stating:

[…] we now also have to reconsider the approach we were originally taking.  Once we can analyse and understand the implications of what is happening both socially and economically, the Climate Change Plan update will need to be recast to articulate a ‘green pathway to recovery that is in line with our Climate Change targets, including reaching net zero by 2045.

Alongside attempting to mainstream climate change throughout the Scottish Parliament and Government; Scottish institutions, the UK Government and many other stakeholders were also gearing up to welcome thousands of delegates, journalists and environmental campaigners, as well as dozens of world leaders to Glasgow in November for COP26.

This has now also been postponed until mid-2021, with UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa noting that whilst “COVID-19 is the most urgent threat facing humanity today, […] climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity over the long term”, furthermore:

Soon, economies will restart. This is a chance for nations to recover better, to include the most vulnerable in those plans, and a chance to shape the 21st century economy in ways that are clean, green, healthy, just, safe and more resilient.

Is COVID19 good for the climate?

A rapid scaling back of energy use and industrial production undoubtedly reduces greenhouse gas emissions in the short-term, however when this happens in an unplanned and chaotic way, inequalities are acutely highlighted and exacerbated; the transition is not “just”.

François Gemenne, a lead author for the United Nation’s climate change assessments warns against arguing that the COVID19 crisis is good for the climate and the environment, or that we ought to apply the same measures against climate change; stating:

Emissions always tend to bounce back after a crisis. We’ve already seen this in China, and we saw it after the 2008-2009 crisis. The climate needs a steady and regular drop in greenhouse gas emissions, not a ‘blank’ year.

However, leading scientists and economists have recently argued that climate change and poverty should be tackled with the same intensity as the current pandemic. Professor Sir Michael Marmot, an expert in health inequalities, notes that the current situation reveals “what governments are capable of doing”, and:

The urgency with which the government had acted showed that the response to an emergency could be swift and decisive. But the climate crisis has been viewed as a “slow-burn” issue and had not elicited such a response. Coronavirus exposes that we can do things differently, […] We must not go back to the status quo ante.

Green pathways

On 24 March, Cabinet Secretary Fiona Hyslop updated the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, stating that there will need to be a revision to the Scottish budget, and that:

We want a recovery that takes us in the direction of resuming our plans on wellbeing and a net zero economy. There will be changes in people’s behaviour that will mean that, in some areas, we might be able to tackle those issues more easily.


We need to think about what stimulus we can provide to encourage businesses and households. [Ensuring that] our stimulus is combined with our work on the shift to low carbon that will need to take place in other areas, such as those relating to homes, communities, resilience, heating.

Regarding the delay to COP26, Mark Maslin, professor of climatology at University College London, considers it to be a “blessing in disguise as many of us were aware that the [UK] Government was nowhere near ready to lead such momentous and important international negotiations”.

One of the leading architects of the 2015 Paris Agreement, Christiana Figueres stated:

If governments put health, nature regeneration and climate action at the core of every decision they make in recovering from this pandemic, we can emerge as a stronger and more resilient society, and ensure the COP26 puts us on track to a safer climate future.

Where now for Scotland?

In February 2020, the Scottish Government wrote to the UK Committee on Climate Change to ask for advice on the “highly ambitious” and “extremely challenging” 2030 target to reduce emissions by 75%. This is due to be published in September as part of UK wide advice on the pathway to net-zero.

The Scottish Government has also now written to the Committee on Climate Change to ask for advice “on a green recovery for Scotland”.

With the updated CCP postponed until further notice, there is an opportunity for the latest expert advice to be incorporated into the plan when it does come forward for scrutiny.

What do we actually know?

Nobody yet knows what a green pathway to recovery might look like, however governments and central banks are under pressure to make today’s economic bailouts dependent on climate action in the longer term.

Climate change is not a “crisis” in the same terms as the current pandemic – it is an irreversible transformation. Francois Gemenne notes that:

There will be no going back to normal, no vaccine. There is a need for structural measures, not short-term ones.

We know, therefore, that climate change can’t be tackled long-term, and that a just transition can’t be achieved by short-term lockdown.

The rolling news cycle might also suggest that society is developing new insights into interdisciplinary science. An understanding that encompasses how multiple social and economic interactions and medicine, mathematical modelling, mapping, disease testing, and essential supply chains all interact.

Christiana Figueres considers that “moments of crisis are always moments of opportunity”. Disruption to systems makes them ripe for change, and the need for systemic change is at the heart of tackling the climate crisis.

What we don’t yet know however is whether a prominent role for and appreciation of experts is being re-discovered; and if it is, will this follow through in relation to climate change?

Alasdair Reid, Senior Researcher; Energy, Climate Change and Land Reform