Dr James Dyke, Assistant Director of the University of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute (GSI), on what happens with our climate post-pandemic.

The phrase Building Back Better was coined back in 2015 by the UN, and comes from the idea of using a disaster as a trigger to become more resilient, tackle threats and prepare for the future.

However since the start of the pandemic we are hearing it everywhere, from journalists and scientists, from charities and business leaders, as well as politicians including Boris Johnson and Joe Biden, who even adopted it as his campaign slogan.

But beyond the words, what is actually being done to Build Back Better in the aftermath of COVID-19? And what does it mean for the future?

“We’re essentially reverting to business as normal.” says Dr James Dyke, Assistant Director of the Global Systems Institute (GSI) at the University of Exeter and Columnist for The i newspaper.

“There was the notion last April that we had this great opportunity to Build Back Better and that we would take it, but already we’re seeing where most of the money from central government and also industry is going, which is back to a so called ‘brown recovery’, back to fossil fuel powered growth.

“So rather than it represent some kind of significant rupture in the way in which we’ve been progressing our economic development for the last 100+ years, it looks as if it’s just back to plan A.

"It feels a bit like the situation we were in after the 2008/09 financial crash where some commentators were calling it as the moment where global capitalism was going to have its reckoning! Given the narrative that a tiny fraction of society had gambled recklessly and required public funds to be bailed out, there must be a radical restructure of how we were going to generate and most importantly distribute wealth. But of course, as we all know, that’s not what happened.

“I don’t think anyone was naïve earlier on, thinking that this was a moment where we could genuinely Build Back Better; that this would be the moment to undertake restructuring, but certainly what we’re seeing now is clear evidence that we are just going to continue as was.”

2020 saw a 7% fall in global carbon emissions versus 2019 due to lockdown measures, with emissions from transport accounting for the largest share of the decrease. However despite lower emissions in 2020, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere continues to grow – by about 2.5 parts per million (ppm) in 2020 – and is projected to reach 412 ppm averaged over the year, 48% above pre-industrial levels. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) has said that the impact of lockdowns overall has been negligible and reports suggest there is already a rebound as restrictions are lifted further and governments seek a return to economic growth.

James says: “It’s too early to know how big the rebound will be. Emissions could easily return to 2019 levels or rise even further, and it is the economic stimulus packages that will dictate this.

"Simple things like encouraging working from home or making cities more pedestrian and cycle friendly can help. Likewise expanding renewable energy and electric car usage in the longer term.

“We have to remember though, that more renewable energy won’t do anything if we don’t also turn off fossil fuel energy. So when we’ve seen this tremendous deployment of solar for example, that’s in addition to fossil fuel energy production and increasing our total energy generation overall. It’s not as if we’re deploying a solar plant and switching off a gas one. And that is what needs to happen in order to have a significant impact.”

The Paris Climate Agreement, signed in 2015 by almost every country in the world, committed to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels; and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C.

However most experts say that it is actually not enough to limit warming to this level, and reports show that most countries are not hitting their targets. Given that, should we put so much weight on target and future commitments?

James says: “The Paris Agreement was really important and was the culmination of 20-25 years of trying to get the international community to agree how dangerous climate is and at what point we need to limit our interference with the climate system. I don’t think anyone was under any illusion that that was going to be problem solved on its own, but it was a start. However it did need to be followed up with action.

“Mostly what’s happening is that countries are making pledges or promises that they will be netzero by some point in the future. But it doesn’t really mean anything until you see emission reductions now.

"There are probably about 10 years left at current rates of emission before we completely blow the budget and there isn’t anyone really who thinks we’re going to meet the Paris Agreement targets. We’re not going to keep warming below 2°C degrees so what policy makers are now saying is that we’re going to invest heavily in future technologies, ways in which we’re going to suck carbon out of the earth’s atmosphere in the middle of this century. That’s the only way they can claim that they are making positive steps.

“Now this is technologically possible, but the technologies don’t currently exist. We know how to do direct air carbon capture, we know that trees sequester carbon, and we know that marine sinks can be particularly effective. Plus we know where we need to store carbon – in depleted gas and oil wells – we know how we might be able to lock it up in biochar or something.

"We know the basics and it’s not as if we’ve got to drag the Earth further away from the sun or put a big space mirror in place. We just need to stop burning fossil fuels. The challenge of course is that most of the globe is still powered by coal, oil, and gas. So climate change isn’t so much a physics problem, but a social, and political problem.

"Fixing that may seem like an impossible challenge, but let’s not kid ourselves that drawing down billions of carbon from the atmosphere and safely storing it for thousands of years is going to be any easier. So yes, there needs to be a massive increase in funding and innovation around negative emissions, but we must not let the promise of future technologies allow complacency and inaction now."

In December 2020 James joined 40 other scientists in submitting an open letter about net zero myths, but despite all this he’s still positive that change can come.

“Recent research found that the Earth could support 9 billion people at 1960s levels of emissions.” He says. “And while it would require a significant roll out of new technology and reduced consumption for some people, it wouldn’t mean living in a cave. It just means thinking about what makes a good life, and how much energy would be required for everyone to enjoy it.

“Despite the fact that levels of extreme poverty have fallen in the past 200 years, there are still millions of people that do not have access to electricity, nutritious food, healthcare, education and other vital elements required for a good life. We need to redouble our efforts in order no one is left behind.

“The fundamental flaw in that plan is that if everyone were to consume as much as the average European then we would lose any chance of avoiding climate breakdown. We are being forced to decide between people and planet. And what we actually need to do is think about these things as one.

“There is absolutely the need to make the case continuously that issues about climate change are issues about social justice. The overall motivation for caring about the climate is because we care about people and hopefully the other species that we share the biosphere with. This idea of dangerous climate change… it’s not dangerous to the Earth, the Earth will be fine. It’s dangerous to people. And the people who will take the brunt of the impact are those who are already suffering from some of the extreme inequalities.

“The COVID pandemic, and the subsequent vaccine development, has shown us very clearly that we are one world, and that we must all work together if we are to succeed. I'm still hopeful that we use this experience to create a positive difference in the world."