As large parts of the world are gradually becoming habituated to living in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, global attention has turned to restarting the economy. One of the most consequential impacts of these efforts will be that on our climate policies and environmental conditions. With the critical 2020 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow delayed by a year and governments around the world scrambling to avert a recession, decisions and actions taken – and not taken – in the coming months and years risk putting the world on the wrong track for decades and centuries to come.
Early on, widely publicised reports on wildlife returning to locked-down cities offered hope that the pandemic might be a boon for the environment. Climate was supposed to be a beneficiary as well, with the percentage drop in global carbon dioxide emissions touted by some as the largest since World War II and the Great Depression. But to believe that these singular events anticipate long-term trends may turn out to be little more than wishful thinking, “as the drop is a one-off that will probably be quickly erased as economies rebound” (Oroschakoff 2020).
Even before the pandemic was officially declared, the challenge faced by efforts to prioritise climate and the environment was already enormous: “By making it clear how deep and wide the necessary transformation needs to be, they risk triggering a powerful self-preservation pushback from those who benefit from the status quo. They already have. Alternative paths to human well-being within the natural world are already being dismissed as too difficult or outlandish to even contemplate” (Juraszek 2020). Now that governments are in a rush to restart economies, the pushback has not relented; far from it. And the stakes could not be higher.
At the time of writing, the situation is complex, to put it mildly. The US administration has intensified its campaign against environmental protections, the UK – the host of the next UN climate summit – has taken a back seat, and the largest emitter, China, “is sending mixed messages by backing coal power stations as part of its recovery” (Carrington 2020). With the spectre of a new recession looming ever larger on the horizon, and the carefully crafted budgets based on pre-pandemic economic projections now meaningless, there is no guarantee that the trillions of recovery cash being pumped into economies will be “directed toward technologies and sectors that could have an impact on climate change” (Oroschakoff 2020). Ensuring that climate mitigation and adaptation are given due attention is already shaping up to be an uphill battle, as critics are concerned that public money may end up funding dirty projects; indeed, polluters have already been “lobbying hard for bailouts” (Carrington 2020).
The European Union – with its much-hyped Green Deal and environmental credentials – is the only major player on the global stage that seems to be taking climate goals at least half-seriously even as the pandemic and the economy have stolen the limelight. The green recovery package put forward by the European Commission has set a high standard for other nations, “using the rebuilding of coronavirus-ravaged economies to tackle the even greater threat of the climate emergency, in principle at least” (Carrington 2020). These initiatives may well reach far beyond the EU itself, not only by setting an example, but also thanks to a border tax on carbon-intensive imports.
However, it is vital not to be naïve about the price the environment will have to pay for “green” investments. Much of these will be in the renewable energy sector, whose environmental dimension is controversial, to say the least. While preferable to continuing reliance on fossil fuels, “transition to renewables is going to require a dramatic increase in the extraction of metals and rare-earth minerals, with real ecological and social costs” (Hickel 2019). In pursuit of the less-bad option that renewables provide as compared to fossil fuels, it is crucial not to make matters worse by plundering whatever still remains of functioning ecosystems. This is particularly imperative with extractive industries now scouting out resources necessary for building the new energy infrastructure. Currently, an emerging threat to ecosystems is deep sea mining that is bound to have a detrimental impact on wildlife as well as on human food sources. Vulnerable species and populations of marine life as well as commercially-important fish catches such as tuna, already ravaged by overfishing, oil and gas exploration, rising temperatures, ocean acidification, and pollution, could further suffer from toxic leaks released by mining operations, “risking irreversible damage for the many who rely on the ocean for their livelihoods” (Hunt 2020). Whatever supposed benefit deep sea mining may bring, it is outweighed by the cost of further damaging the web of life.
At the same time, the way climate and environmental policies are negotiated, adopted, and enforced needs to be transformed to ensure that genuine results are reached. Paris Agreement may have replaced the ineffectual Kyoto Protocol to much fanfare, but so far it has failed to put us on a trajectory that would prevent climate collapse. And even its insufficient pledges are under threat in the face of the impending economic recession, as policymakers may resort to solutions similar to the ones adopted after the financial crisis just over a decade ago: solutions that arguably only served to temporarily avert disaster while making the underlying tensions and fractures worse and risking an even more serious future crisis. On top of that, measures adopted in the wake of an emergency may overstay their welcome, as has been the case with the American security paradigm after 9/11. Overhauled to fight terrorism, it fundamentally changed domestic and international policy for the worse, with consequences lasting to this day, “from unending warfare to increasing global instability to ever diminishing U.S. influence” (Rosenberg & Hannah 2020). In light of this, William Nordhaus has put forward a new framework for climate agreements that would replace the current flawed model with the “Climate Club”, a different incentive structure within which nations could overcome the syndrome of free-riding in international climate agreements and enforce meaningful penalties for nations that do not participate; otherwise, “the global effort to curb climate change is sure to fail” (Nordhaus 2020). Whether such a club will be formed, let alone deliver on its goals, remains to be seen.
The pandemic has derailed many activities that drive our economic and social life, its short-term consequences damaging but long-term ones potentially life-saving. If the current efforts to restart these activities in their pre-pandemic form succeed, this will only leave us vulnerable to future pandemics and other crises, including environmental ones. We need a new policy regime that would help citizens get accustomed to less physical interaction while remaining fully functional. Social distancing appears to require locking down cities and paralysing the economy only because it hasn’t been properly woven into the fabric of our societies. “If we readapt our economies, we could practice social distancing while keeping our economies alive” (Snower 2020). It is more than just the matter of reducing infection rates. People better able to work and protect themselves in epidemic circumstances will also be more resilient once worsening environmental conditions (from rainstorms to flooding to heatwaves) make venturing outdoors life-threatening on a regular basis.
The pandemic may change the world in ways big and small, and whether we emerge out of it stronger or weaker depends on whether we understand that the worst possible scenario is to try and revive the status quo. Not only would that exacerbate tensions within the global economy and further fracture our societies, but also squander perhaps the very last chance we may have to prepare for what is coming our way. This is what should be on the minds of policymakers, pundits, and citizens as arguments and choices are being made on our common future.
Carrington, D. “EU green recovery package sets a marker for the world”. The Guardian, 28.05.2020. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/28/eu-green-recovery-package-sets-a-marker-for-the-world
Hickel, J. “The Limits of Clean Energy”. Foreign Policy, 6.09.2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/06/the-path-to-clean-energy-will-be-very-dirty-climate-change-renewables/
Hunt, L. “NGOs and Scientists Urge Moratorium on Deep Sea Mining in the Pacific”. The Diplomat, 20.05.2020. https://thediplomat.com/2020/05/ngos-and-scientists-urge-moratorium-on-deep-sea-mining-in-the-pacific/
Juraszek, D. “‘Green growth’ may well be more of the same”. Instytut Boyma, 16.01.2020. https://instytutboyma.org/en/green-growth-may-well-be-more-of-the-same/
Nordhaus, W. “The Climate Club. How to Fix a Failing Global Effort”. Foreign Affairs, 10.04.2020. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-04-10/climate-club
Oroschakoff, K. “Coronavirus slashes emissions (for now)”. Politico.eu, 19.05.2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/coronavirus-slashes-emissions-for-now/
Rosenberg, B. & M. Hannah. “After the Coronavirus, Don’t Repeat 9/11’s Mistakes”. Foreign Policy, 29.04.2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/29/coronavirus-pandemic-national-security-911-mistakes-trump-administration-immigration-privacy/
Snower, D. “Don’t save the economy. Change the economy”. Politico.eu, 19.05.2020. https://www.politico.eu/article/dont-save-the-economy-change-the-economy-coronavirus-covid19/
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