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The Corona pandemic shows us the way out of the climate emergency

by Chris Langdon

Filed under Coronavirus / Climate Emergency

Why the pandemic is just the shock we need to jolt us into addressing the climate emergency.

As we grapple with the Coronavirus pandemic, leaders have to answer one central question. Do we try to restart the economy? Or do we now need a total reset?

At first sight, the answer might seem a no-brainer.

Reviving shattered economies, nationally and globally, is the first goal of all responsible governments. However, an ‘economy first’ approach, just targeted at saving pre-corona crisis industries, carries severe risks.

“A return to the old ‘business as usual’ would almost certainly lead to a global temperature increase of 3°C. That would result in massive environmental instability,” a group of leading economists have warned.

To borrow the famous Chilean protest slogan: we don’t want to go back to ‘normal,’ because ‘normal’ is the problem.

We have all witnessed the old ‘normal’ being rendered obsolete in weeks.

What’s more, we now face the threat of “an endemic infection for years to come”, warns UCL Virology Professor Deenan Pillay.

There cannot be a return to the way we used to live, however much we might hanker for it.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is not just a healthcare issue,” suggests marine biologist Samantha Gordine. “It is a symptom of a much bigger problem at hand – the environmental crisis that is engulfing us. After all, this crisis is not just about carbon, but about how we live with, and in, the natural environment. A healthy environment is resilient, but we have weakened nature’s defences.”

Pandemic risks side-lined as unpalatable

We have been blind to the damage we have done. Scientists say that 75% of the new microbes affecting humans come from animals. Another deadly virus through zoonotic transfer is certainly on the cards.

For years, governments rejected as “unthinkable” the expert scientific warnings of inevitable deadly pandemics.

Since 2015, the alerts were at the top of risk warnings. Apart from Asia where SARS was a deadly wake-up call, leaders side-lined pandemic risks as unpalatable. It was not politically and economically convenient to listen to the warnings and take the necessary action of prevention and preparation.

Will leaders, and in fact all of us, be able to break out of short-termism to which we have been conditioned?

Difficult as it is to admit, do we now owe the Corona crisis a perverse debt of gratitude?

Covid-19 hope for climate

There is now a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to focus on a fundamental reset of the global economy. We urgently need systemic change that will allow us to avoid a future environmental apocalypse.

The unprecedented measures that governments have taken in just a few months show that, when there is a political will, there is a way. Public sector interventions add up to an eye-watering £6 trillion in the G20 twenty leading economies alone.

And the speed is almost ‘Leninist’, the UN Special Envoy on Climate Mark Carney has said, a tad enviously.

“It’s a time warp for climate change,” says Christiana Figueres, an architect of the Paris Climate Agreement. “We are learning many things from the management of the health crisis that we can apply to the climate crisis. These types of global challenges require both top-down measures such as those that can only be put in place by government, but also bottom-up individual behavioural changes, and both are entirely possible.”

The example that immediately comes to mind is the clean air we have enjoyed since the lockdowns. What has happened abruptly will - from now on - have to be done by design. The recent 8% fall in emissions will now need to be sustained annually for the next 30 years.

There are promising signs that some leaders are aware of the need for green investment as part of the response to Covid-19.

At a little-reported virtual international dialogue on climate action on 28th April, there was an unequivocal commitment to a green recovery.

The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel said: “There will be a difficult debate about the allocation of funds. But it is important that recovery programmes always keep an eye on the climate, we must not side-line climate but rather invest in climate technologies.”

Acting UK Prime Minister, Dominic Raab fully agreed with the goals of: “Investing in industries and infrastructure that can turn the tide on climate change”.

Is the UK Government now willing to put its money and political capital where its mouth is?

Turning words into action

Policies to turn leaders’ rhetoric into reality were spelled out during the virtual dialogue by Lord Nicholas Stern, a former senior adviser to the World Bank and British Government, now an LSE Professor: “We have to build for the future. We should only be bailing out firms that are going to contribute to tackling climate change.

“They don’t have to be ostensibly clean tech firms at the moment, but they do have to be committed to cutting their emissions in line with international targets.”

On May 6, the UK’s Climate Change Committee further upped the pressure on No 10 Downing Street by publishing six key principles to rebuild the nation following Covid-19.

The Committee is one of a number of voices calling for radical action on climate as part of the Corona response.

A“Tilt to Green” investment, is what the European Bank for Reconstruction (EBRD) brands it. Avaaz have dubbed it a ‘Green Recovery’. ‘Building back better’ is another fast-growing meme. As old industries die, new ones have to be created… and fast. With the right investment, thousands of jobs can be created in carbon capture and storage, the shift to hydrogen fuels, offshore wind, and other new technologies not yet developed or invented.

What is at stake is a transformation of economies – full-scale fundamental change. Tinkering at the edges does not suffice. Vapid utterances of yet more ‘greenwash’ would be a recipe for disaster.

What is needed is a concerted action by governments and international institutions. Nothing short of a ‘reset, or the rebuild, or the relaunch’ of the economy as Mark Carney summarises the ambitions.

The benefits are clear.

On a global scale, investing in green jobs would unlock $26 trillion for the global economy and create 65 million jobs, according to businessman and environmental campaigner, Paul Polman. It would require, as Polman advocates, a shift from short term, shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism.

This may sound like ‘leftist’ talk. It isn’t.

Almost half of the CEOs of US Fortune 500 companies, asked in May 2020 what should happen as a result of the pandemic, agreed with the statement: “Accelerate the move toward stakeholder capitalism, in order to address the human suffering caused by the crisis.”

The goal now has to be to persuade CEOs, as well as political leaders, to follow-up on their words.

A reset will require acts of extraordinary vision, courage and energy. Leaders have to think the unthinkable on an unprecedented scale.

It would have been unimaginable a few weeks ago, but now, in the midst of the Corona crisis response, nothing is impossible.

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