For the sustainability agenda, 2019 could be described as a boom year. Thanks to Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough and Extinction Rebellion, to name but a few, never have such a wider group of people become engaged with the need for change to our consumptive lives. As the voices got louder and the fires and floods continued unabated many realised climate change was now the climate emergency.  Instead of a few global warriors fuming at the gills, vast swathes of people were taking to the streets and demanding from high that change was our only future. More than this, even those ‘goliaths of greed’ the corporates were starting to realise, rather like a political party at the time of an election, you can’t be leaders you have to be followers – followers of what the majority, your customers, demand. Their survival depended on their attitude to change. Then came 2020!

Ironically it has taken a global pandemic, possibly a result of man’s exploitation of nature, to show us what a world with reduced emissions looks like, albeit for a very short time. As academics from the University of East Anglia have just reported, global, daily carbon emissions, have ‘… decreased by 17% – or 17 million tonnes of carbon dioxide… during the peak of the confinement measures in early April compared to mean daily levels in 2019…’ Nature has shown us its resilience, in just a few (rather long) weeks, wildlife seems to be smiling, our waters are refreshed, and our air is pure (well a little purer). Never, could anyone have imagined a change on this level in such a short space of time. Climate campaigners had asked for a change over the next ten years, not weeks or months. Obviously, this is short-lived and a result of an unprecedented and dreadful time but what has also emerged, alongside the smiling wildlife are crying humans. For many not only in the Global South but also the ‘developed nations’, poverty is looming, livelihoods are crashing and families are in despair.

According to World Bank Group President David Malpass the lockdown of capitalism means ‘…advanced economies could push as many as 60 million people into extreme poverty – erasing much of the recent progress made in poverty alleviation.’  The result of tumbling emissions is growing poverty and greater inequality. It is like carbon emissions have become a drug, one which feeds the world from consumptive greed. Eradicating the drug needs a much better understanding and acceptance of how we address the climate emergency; we must embrace all seventeen of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Sustainable development isn’t just about climate it is also about overcoming inequality, as Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated, ‘As the Secretary-General has highlighted, we must build back better. No country was prepared for this shock, which in every State has been exacerbated by inequalities, particularly in access to health-care, social protections and public services. The epidemic has clarified the need to increase our efforts to ensure that all people, including the most vulnerable, benefit from development. We need to redouble efforts to build more inclusive and sustainable economies…’ Michelle Bachelet went on to say that ‘…protecting the environment, ensuring biodiversity, is the best way to protect human health and wellbeing…’ But I wonder with our post pandemic knowledge, whether we should look at this another way? Protecting people, ensuring human health and wellbeing is the best way to protect the environment.

Have we come at protecting our planet from the wrong direction? If we put people first they will in turn protect their environment. And, for those ready to barn storm social media with, ‘well we have done that for decades and look at the environmental mess we are in.’ My answer is, we haven’t. We have empowered the elites; we have empowered the wealthy and the privileged and we have ensured the protection of profits for shareholder primacy.

Cutting global emissions drastically and quickly will undoubtedly, as evidenced by this pandemic, have serious repercussions – exemplified in the tourism industry. Megan Epler-Wood, of Epler-Wood International highlighted, ‘First and foremost, it is destinations that are the most impacted and most vulnerable to the drastic die-back of tourism. It is the inhabitants of destinations who will be forced into poverty without it.’ Megan Epler-Wood continued, ‘Recovery efforts should not only bail out travel industry businesses, but the destinations themselves.’ Not only this but without upsetting the Swedes and Greta Thunberg too much I think policies like flygskam (flight shame) need far greater consideration. By all of a sudden not flying or shaming people into not flying we are not only likely to push billions of people around the world into greater poverty, but we are also threatening jobs and livelihoods closer to home.

It is not that we have a trade-off between climate and people, it is that we need to find innovative solution led outcomes that build from people upwards. These solutions need to challenge business-as-usual, for example, we need to find cleaner, more efficient ways to fly planes, but we have to ensure our climate reactions don’t threaten our sustainable inactions; in other words, let’s synchronise all 17 UN SDG’s. Megan Epler-Wood offers such an innovative solution to tourism, through the Sustainable Tourism Marshall Plan Fund or funds which she says ‘…could become key mechanisms in managing destination recovery.’ This is the type of innovation that is needed for inclusive sustainable development. The plan looks to the original ideas set out in the post-World War II Marshall Plan, but ‘…needs to prioritize the reconstruction of failing tourism destination economies, not bail out multinational business.’ This is not protecting or empowering the elites it is protecting the vulnerable, putting vulnerable people first.

Many of the arguments to make immediate and drastic cuts in emissions state that if we don’t do it now, then the vulnerable we are speaking of will be so negatively impacted by climate change in ten years or so they will lose their livelihoods and homes anyway. Of course, this may well be true, and we must continue to cut emissions and find ways to live more sustainably. But this has to be done with everyone on-board, without inequality, otherwise we just build a new form of business-as-usual where the vulnerable and disadvantaged get left behind, once again.


Photo Credit: Photo by Jordan Opel on Unsplash


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