As little as two weeks into the global lockdown, the air felt fresh and crisp, and the oceans became cleaner. Carbon emissions were dropping, and birds and animals began returning to places where they were once deemed extinct. The global decrease in business related travel, more work through home video calling, and other workplace adjustments have kept global economies running, whilst also ensuring public safety that have had positive knock on effects for the environment.
Countries are beginning to lift lockdowns, and it has become clear the COVID-19 pandemic has given governments a one-off and likely never to be repeated opportunity to transform their economies and social policies. As big of a challenge it might be to take a ‘different’ path post recovery, the potential benefits can be very advantageous to the world as a whole.
The biggest challenges humans face such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, can only be efficiently dealt with through international cooperation. The responses to the pandemic have demonstrated the importance of international science-led cooperation when responding to a global crisis. Dr. Heather Graven, a senior lecturer in Atmospheric Physics at Imperial’s Department of Physics, states the responses taken against the coronavirus has brought important insights into how the Earth’s atmosphere responds to sudden changes. These important insights account for how we can now study the effect of lockdown measures, such as enhanced self-awareness and reduced travel that these past months have had. These insights will allow us to make necessary changes in order to maximize the positives brought by pandemic.
A Climate Friendly Recovery
Countries, companies, and institutions have already been pioneering change to make global production more environmentally friendly. Last week for example, the European Union announced plans of a massive recovery package that puts climate change at the heart of the plan. Billions will be made available to make homes more ‘energy efficient, to decarbonize electricity, and to phase out petrol and diesel vehicles’. World leaders such as Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister have welcomed such actions, stating “the recovery should be green, or it will not be a recovery, just a short-cut into problems we face now.” Economic giants and global institutions have begun to pressure governments to transfer their policies to be more climate friendly. For example, in the U.K., over 200 top businesses, organizations, and investors have called on the government to seek an environmentally focused recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The signatories including Lloyds Bank, Sky, and Tesco have outlined proposals and plans given to PM Boris Johnson to ensure that the post-coronavirus recovery will be climate friendly, and essentially to make sure the country will not be as ill prepared for future crises.
Viable Alternatives to Fossil Fuel
In addition to the clear positives for our environment and atmosphere going green have, there are sound economic reasons politicians should seek a more climate friendly approach. Renewable energy is now becoming a cheaper option than burning fossil fuels in most parts of the world. Solar and wind production is more affordable and less messy to deal with than oil, coal, or gas. Electric vehicles are no longer seen as a boring slower alternative to its petrol or diesel counterparts. Major car companies such as Volkswagen, Ford, and BMW have been focusing on making electric cars just as fast if not faster than gas cars, and technological advances in the industry has meant vehicles charge up in less than half the time when originally introduced.
Furthermore, as more than 1.5 billion people worldwide are in immediate danger of losing their livelihoods, investment redirection to the renewable energy sector could be exactly the solution for the growing employment crisis. The building and maintenance of wind turbines, solar farms, charging ports, the electric vehicle industry and so on, may offer thousands of jobs in a sector continuously growing. The much-needed environmental transformation, however, will hardly be impactful unless the U.S.A. and People’s Republic of China both do not agree to commit to a greener global future, as both countries account for a majority of all carbon emissions.
The China Question
According to the Environmental Development Fund (EDF), China has been burning 50% of the world coal supply each year, and the country is responsible for 25% of the world’s climate pollution. The country has been suffering from global warming and its own climate effects, most notably air pollution, which causes thousands of deaths annually due to respiratory diseases.
Fortunately, China’s methods to contain the coronavirus such as quarantines and travel bans have resulted in a 25% reduction in carbon emissions. In recent years the world’s most populous country and foremost greenhouse gas emitter has taken steps forward with regards to its environmental policies. Marshall Burke, a Stanford University scientist, suggests more than 77,000 lives may have been saved in the first two months of lockdown due to the country’s reduction in air traffic, oil refining, and coal consumption. Last week the country’s spokesmen for the Ministry of Ecology and Environment affirmed in a press conference “China’s carbon emission reduction will not change with the occurrence of the epidemic.” The spokesmen went on to state ‘‘China will fully implement its commitment to nationally determined contributions (NDCs) on climate change under the Paris climate agreement.’’
There are fears however, amidst trade wars and supply chains disruptions in the energy sector, China may revert to previous growth rates which will inevitably harm the environment. Additional cause for concern may be that China as well as other nations may pursue protectionist policies contradictory of pro-environmentalism, the likes the U.S. have made since President Trump’s arrival. Li Shou, an energy expert with Greenpeace East Asia suggests the U.S. position looms very large in China’s political calculus. He states, “there is a feeling here in China that it is unfair for Beijing to move forward with its climate agenda at the same time as the US is moving backwards.”
Trump’s Rollback Policies
Since elected as President, Donald Trump’s administration has undone, reversed, and is attempting to reserve regulatory and executive actions related to climate change, whilst proposing new policies aimed to accelerate fossil fuel development. President Trump began this rollback process by withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord, a binding treaty that aims to reduce fossil fuel emissions which is signed by nearly all nation-states. According to Columbia University’s Center for Climate Change Law, his administration has since filed over 131 actions towards federal climate deregulation. The Guardian reports since COVID-19 became a global pandemic, the U.S. has “loosened existing emissions regulations… (Whilst) finding death rates are significantly higher in areas with poor air pollution.” The U.S. further caused controversy last month after President Trump announced he is severing ties with the so called ‘China backed’ World Health Organization. If the U.S. continues with such actions, there is little chance for a post-coronavirus pro-environment outlook. However, President Trump’s November electoral opponent Joe Biden is preparing a massive environmentally focused plan which may bring some hopes up.
According to a poll conducted in April by IPSOS MORI, 87% of Chinese people see climate change as serious a threat as COVID-19. In the United States, even where support was at its lowest, 59% of citizens believed the same. It is very difficult to remain ignorant about the carbon footprint left by Humans, record breaking ‘unusual’ temperatures – global warming and the climate crisis has made that evident. For a greener, cleaner and safer world, both the U.S. and China must commit to a climate friendly agenda.
Lessons from the Current Pandemic
Experts believe there are lessons to be learned from the coronavirus pandemic, that could put us in a better position to fight climate change in the future. The parallels between COVID-19 and climate change are evident. Both are global crises which threaten the life of millions, and the threats can be largely reduced through scientific evidence which most governments have been slow to act upon.
Dr. Gambhir, an Imperial College professor believes experts are back on agenda and their place in informing public policy has been restored to some degree. He adds, what is of interest, is our ability to stick with new behaviours. People around the world have had to completely change their normal everyday behaviour habits, in order to ‘survive.’ Communities have been coming together like never before, more aware their individual actions have a major impact to society as a whole. We must make permanent changes in this rare circumstance and take advantage of some of our responses made with regards to the coronavirus, in order to conserve the environment for future generations. The actions of individuals are as important as the ones taken by governments, and in this unprecedented time, calls for change will be heard louder than ever.
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