OPINION: When we exit from level 4 lockdown, a tremendous fiscal stimulus package will be required to revive the economy. All in all, tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars will be spent keeping businesses afloat and jobs open so that we can return to a semblance of normality as quickly as possible.
This economic survival package will create a massive debt to be repaid in the decades to come. The way that it is spent will shape our economy and society for generations. As it will be the next generation of taxpayers that faces the greatest share of this burden, it would be a deep and tragic irony if this spending compounds the other global crisis we face, the climate crisis.
But with the pandemic crisis comes climate opportunity. Our fiscal response to Covid-19 represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to move our economy onto a path towards a zero-carbon and environmentally sustainable future.
Progress in tackling the looming climate change crisis has felt painfully slow. We need urgent systemic changes to transport infrastructure, energy production and incentives for land use in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C and avoid the worst impacts of climate change. A slow response causes additional and avoidable suffering tomorrow.
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Across the globe, government responses to the pandemic shows that we can mobilise in the face of a global emergency. When the scale and consequences of the pandemic were appreciated, governments shut down borders, enforced social distancing and created new forms of fiscal support overnight.
These actions remind us that the state’s primary responsibility is to protect its citizens, and that when radical action is required the government should not defer or delay. In responding to both the Covid-19 emergency and the climate crisis, clear leadership and decisive action from the government are vital.
As well as infrastructure investment and creating the right price signals to decarbonise, this includes explaining what individual actions are required and why, so that citizens are informed and empowered to be part of the solution, rather than patronised and subordinated.
We are today living in a re-wired world that we could not have imagined a month ago. We have glimpsed a future of telecommuting, roads as pedestrian thoroughfares and reduced pollution.
Let this give us the confidence and courage to change our travel preferences, diets and consumption patterns, and to demand a fiscal response to Covid-19 that supports the infrastructure to allow us to thrive within a sustainable environment.
The economic stimulus can form a cornerstone of our response to climate change if it is used strategically to:
- build a sustainable transport network that prioritises rail, light rail, cycling, walking and public transport over petrol and diesel cars and trucks;
- support electric transport options;
- improve the energy efficiency of our homes;
- improve the sustainability of our agriculture sector; and
- restore essential natural resources: our forests, rivers, lakes, wetlands and coastal waters.
The Government has acted swiftly in relation to wage subsidies, mortgage deferrals, winter energy payments, rent freezes, changes to the Companies Act and business loan guarantees. Budget 2020 is due in just over a month’s time, and is the perfect opportunity to signal that we will rebuild from Covid-19 through a climate-friendly stimulus package.
We have asked our children to stay at home even though the evidence is that they would be relatively untroubled by Covid-19 themselves. We will soon borrow from their future incomes to kickstart the economy.
If we are asking this from them, then there must be a duty to make the most of this unique opportunity to reset our economy and protect the environment that they will inherit.
Dr James Every-Palmer QC is part of Lawyers for Climate Action NZ, a group of more than 250 lawyers advocating for legislation and policies to ensure New Zealand meets or exceeds its commitment under the Paris Agreement and achieves net zero carbon emissions as soon as possible and no later than 2050.
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