Be careful what you wish for

I had always rather lazily assumed that reducing carbon emissions was automatically a good thing for the natural environment and human wellbeing. That was until I wrote about the relationship between halting climate change and other sustainability goals, for WSP’s series on how COVID-19 will affect progress towards a net-zero world.

There are a whole range of potential “co-benefits” associated with cleaning up the environment and reducing our reliance on polluting technologies. Switching from fossil fuel to electric-powered vehicles in cities removes a major cause of respiratory disease; decentralized renewables can bring power and connectivity to remote communities; rewilding gives nature more space to flourish. But there are also awkward overlaps and outright conflicts, most notably in massive tree-planting schemes to sequester carbon. Unless we consciously design projects to solve more than one problem, nothing is guaranteed.

This does mean that we can use decarbonization to further goals on which less progress has been made – there is not yet any equivalent to the Paris Agreement on biodiversity loss, for example. Alternatively, where political will is lacking on decarbonization itself, we can substantially strengthen the case by factoring in the wider socioeconomic gains – as the Inter-American Development Bank has done with a detailed cost-benefit analysis of Costa Rica’s national decarbonization plan.

The bottom line is perhaps that if we don’t fully consider all the consequences, net-zero projects are less likely to succeed – and even if they did, would we like the result? As Tom Butterworth, WSP’s UK head of biodiversity, puts it: “If we save the world in terms of climate change, but fail to deliver all of these other benefits, then we will have lost what makes it special. Imagine growing up in a place where the only animals are rats, cockroaches and pigeons – what would it be like to be human in that environment?”