Ask the Expert: Achieving a green and just recovery from the Coronavirus crisis

In this instalment of the SMF’s Ask the Expert series, convened in partnership with UK Research and Innovation, we were joined by Ece Özdemiroğlu, Polly Billington and Matthew Pennycook MP to discuss how a green and just recovery from the coronavirus pandemic could be achieved.


  • Ece Özdemiroğlu, Founding Director of Economics for the Environment Consultancy (eftec) and Member of the Adaptation Committee of the Committee on Climate Change
  • Polly Billington, Director, UK100 and Councillor for de Beauvoir ward, Hackney
  • Matthew Pennycook MP, Shadow Minister for Climate Change

Opening the discussion, Founding Director of eftec, and member of the Adaptation Committee of the Committee on Climate Change, Ece Özdemiroğlu offered four key messages that should be considered in achieving a green and just recovery from the Coronavirus pandemic.

  1. Recovery should be seen as an investment opportunity. “Recovery is an opportunity for improving things and not going back to business as usual”, the eftec Director said, highlighting that if society was to return to ‘normality’, it would increase the risks of future pandemics and leave society vulnerable to climate risk. She noted the importance of turning away from short-termism but rather “invest[ing] in capital that will give us the ability to adapt to future challenges”.
  2. Invest in good ideas. The Adaptation Committee member highlighted that there is no shortage of reports, evidence and good ideas – many of which feature in Boris Johnson’s ‘Ten-point plan for a green industrial revolution’. But she stressed the importance of using public money to accelerate the delivery of these ideas in all sectors across the country.
  3. Get the analysis right and account for all benefits. The eftec Director stressed that there are not only financial benefits to a green recovery, and wider societal benefits including improvements in health and wellbeing should be accounted for in Government assessments of the value of green investment and infrastructure.
  4. Recognise that “solutions do not rest in any one camp”. Solutions for a green recovery do not just lie in any one technology or just in behavioural changes. There is a need for systemic solutions that bring these things together, which can be found through multidisciplinary research.

Covid-19 didn’t happen in isolation, said the environmental economist and it is “not the only risk we are going to be facing in the future”, with more pandemics possible as we “continue to degrade the environment and push the human existence against wildlife”. There is a popular belief that the impact of climate change will only impact later generations, when in actuality these effects are already happening. The focus should not just be on recovering from the effects of the pandemic, but on saving costs from future risks and improving welfare at the same time.

“We need to be alarmed by the risks we are facing, but optimistic about our ability to deal with them if we act collectively at a systematic level”, Ece Özdemiroğlu concluded.

More than 300 local authorities in the UK have declared a climate emergency over the past 18 months, UK100’s Polly Billington noted. Members of the UK100 network, 25% of which are predominately rural authorities, understand and recognise the importance of adaptation and the particular challenges and responsibilities they have in preserving carbon sinks such as peatland areas, she stated.

“The UK government will not be able to get to Net Zero by 2050 without a significant amount of local action led by local authorities” she warned. When questioned on if we can overcome the “centralising force of the British state” and deliver Net Zero, the UK100 Director said that she believes that the Prime Minister’s ‘Ten-point plan’ doesn’t indicate so. There is a need for national government to transform its relationship with local government, as local action is required for the national government to meet its Net Zero targets. Large businesses also need to be involved in the green recovery but on a more local level, with the councillor for De Beauvoir ward stating that while they are accustomed to doing things on a global scale, when they understand the importance of local, this can have a “transformative” impact.

Whilst the UK100 Director praised some emissions reduction efforts undertaken by government, notably in offshore wind, she said that there is much more to be done in the decarbonisation of transport and heat. This work needs to be done in places – it cannot be offshored – and this is the next big challenge where local authorities must be a key player.

As local authorities deal with the pandemic on top of local issues andfunding cuts, Polly stated that it is understandable that some may not make a green recovery a priority. However, she has found that a green recovery is something that a significant number of local authorities are supportive of, stating that it is crucial to the ‘levelling up’ agenda:

  1. The green recovery is a job-creating opportunity, particularly in de-industrialised areas
  2. Areas of the UK which were previously home to significant amounts of industry have a larger grid capacity. By rethinking the grid in such places, Polly said there is an opportunity to reconfigure the UK’s industrial strategy.

Shadow Minister for Climate Change Matthew Pennycook MP highlighted that local people and places were “entirely absent” from the Prime Minister’s ‘Ten-point plan’. Mr Pennycook echoed recent SMF work on public consent for Net Zero policies, stating that failure to consult and be clear with voters risks a kickback which will make meeting legally binding targets much harder.

Mr Pennycook warned against the Government delaying climate change action. The MP said that “there is a consensus about the long-term target, but the issue is:  is the government willing to make the decisions now and level with the public about what needs to happen in this crucial decade”. The Shadow Minister highlighted that there is a huge amount of support for bold climate action and behavioural change amongst voters, but the Government should not delay in making these changes and should be honest about what this means for people living in the UK.

The Shadow Minister welcomed the Government’s commitment to climate action as it is an important signal that the Government recognises that this must be a priority. However, Mr Pennycook argued that the budget for this plan falls short of other countries around the world (and Labour’s recent recommendation that the Government should invest £30billion in green sectors over the next 18 months). The Shadow Minister also noted that the Government’s private capital target falls short of the Net Zero investment gap. Mr Pennycook said that this shows that the Government is not doing enough to reach its 2050 Net Zero target.

This event formed part of the SMF’s Ask the Expert series, run in association with UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Watch the full event here.


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