Updated: May 15, 2020
Contribution signée François Gemenne (FNRS-University of Liège)
In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, many governments have been implementing urgent, costly and radical measures to slow down the spread of the pandemic. Many of these measures result in very significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric pollution–some of them sparing lives, as a result of lower levels of air pollution. Over the course of March 2020, an early estimate reckons that greenhouse gas emissions in the EU were down 60%; international traffic was down 65%.
Though the global impact of the pandemic on climate change will be difficult to assess, one thing is certain: it is possible for world leaders to take urgent and radical measures in the face of an imminent threat, and for the populations to accept them. Yet we haven’t been able, so far, to take similar measures to confront climate change, despite repeated calls from activists and scientists alike to declare a state of ‘climate emergency’.
In the midst of the sanitary crisis, many were prompt to point out the similarities between climate change and the pandemic. Both were global crises, requiring urgent responses on the basis of scientific advice. Therefore, many activists were quick to suggest that the measures implemented to fight against the spread of the pandemic had to be replicated to slow down climate change: ‘we must respond to climate change like we’re responding to coronavirus’, argued many activists. Others went a step further and claimed the pandemic was an ‘ultimatum of nature’, a ‘revenge of the Earth’ or even ‘good news for the environment’. #WeAreTheProblem was a popular hashtag on social media as many countries were in lockdown, as if the pandemic were eventually a way for nature to reclaim its rights.
A looming disaster for the climate
In this piece, I want to argue that the current lockdown is likely to have devastating consequences for climate action, if these consequences are not urgently mitigated. Four reasons justify this claim:
First, all crises have been followed by a rebound effect of greenhouse gas emissions so far. This was the case following the economic and financial crisis of 2008-2009, this is likely to be the case again this time, even though some economists might be right when they argue that this crisis is likely to induce a long economic recession, unable to make up for the emissions saved in 2020.
Second, governments will have to inject billions of euros, dollars and yuan to reboot the economy. In the absence of ‘shovel-ready’ plans to finance low-carbon investments, they are likely to throw a life-buoy to the industries most affected by the crisis, including those depending of fossil fuels.
Many governments and industries will lobby for environmental constraints and regulations to be lifted, in order to boost the economy. Some lobbying effort is already on-going: in the US, the EPA has indefinitely suspended the enforcement of sanctions for violations against environmental regulations. In the EU, Poland and Czech are lobbying for the New Green Deal to be abandoned.
Finally, the social acceptability of many environmental measures is likely to be questioned after the lockdown. This is especially the case if the narrative of a ‘crisis that is good for the climate’ continue to be so present in the news cycle.
What's at stake after the lockdown?
The stakes for climate action will be incredibly high after the lockdown–while many aspire to a new, low-carbon future, many others will be keen to return to the world they knew before.
Here three categories of stakes:
Stakes for international action. The COP26 has been postponed without a new date being set, and it is unlikely that governments will be able to upgrade their Paris Agreement commitments as they were required to do so. Furthermore, international cooperation and organizations are likely to end up in tatters after a crisis where many countries have locked down their borders–also in the figurative sense.
Stakes for the economic reboost. Governments will have at their disposal a massive tool of economic planning. Many economic interests will try and play this at their advantage, especially from the fossil fuel industries.
Stakes for individual behaviour. Some behavioural changes are likely to persist after the lockdown. Teleworking is likely to increase, while public transport traffic is likely to decrease–will people use their bike or their car instead? Too soon to tell, but this is likely to depend also on incentives and disincentives.
Oil prices are historically low. This is a unique opportunity to set a minimum price for oil, or even a carbon tax. Such pricing policies will be painless for the consumers at the moment. The window of opportunity is small, but that’s a historical opportunity to set a fixed price for carbon, which is probably the single measure that would benefit the climate the most.
Fossil fuel subsidies need to be re-oriented. On average, for every euro of public money invested in renewable energy companies, two euros are invested in fossil fuel companies. The crisis offers an opportunity to correct this and invest in the long-run.
Environmental law and climate commitments ought to be strengthened, reaffirmed and consolidated. These will be under heavy pressure from both governments and industries. The principle of non-regression has to be upheld.
Much more attention needs to be given to the health impacts of climate change. Such impacts are well-documented and will have a profound impact on infectious diseases. The World Health Organization reckons that climate change could claim 250000 additional lives per year between 2030 and 2050. The concept on planetary health needs to become a paradigm of public health policy.
Instead of bailing out ailing companies, governments should be encouraged to buy stocks of these companies and increase their participation in the capital of these companies. This way, they will be able to weigh in on the strategic choices of these companies. Conditional bail-outs would also be desirable, but are likely to be difficult to implement. Increased participation in the capital, or even nationalisations, are likely to yield more results.
The European New Green Deal needs to be hailed as the major post-crisis plan. This could be Europe’s moment: now is to uphold and expand this plan, not to postpone or downsize it. In this regard, the absence of Belgium in the list of countries currently supporting the plan is worrying. The New Green Deal could become a foundational moment for the EU.
The COP26 should be used as an opportunity to revive and shake up international cooperation. Instead of just accounting of the upgrade of national commitments, the conference could be used as the opening of a new chapter of multilateralism.
More immediate objectives are needed for climate action. Current objectives, such as climate neutrality by 2050 or 2°C by 2100, span well-beyond the lifetime of many citizens. Here we shall adopt the same approach as the one we used for the coronavirus crisis: maximisation. We ought to do the most of what we can do, rather than focus on objectives that are beyond one’s lifespan. Our response to the crisis is a testimony of our collective capacity to do this and adopt a maximisation approach.
Climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic share many characteristics: both are of global nature, requiring radical responses on the basis of scientific assessments. In both cases, these responses are required first and foremost to protect the most vulnerable. In that regard, the confinement measures taken against Covid-19 represent a remarkable display of solidarity: whole countries were in complete lockdown to protect the elderly and those with a fragile health. This solidarity was often confined to national borders: there was no global response to the crisis, but rather a myriad of different national responses, sometimes very different from one to another. Climate change will require solidarity beyond borders, not just within borders: whereas the effects of closing borders to slow down the spread of the virus can be disputed, there’s no question that climate change can’t be stopped at the border.
There are important lessons to take away from the Covid-19 crisis for the communication of climate change. Let’s not assume however that the measures deployed against the pandemic can be replicated as such to fight climate change. Despite their similarities, climate change will require different solutions. But the coronavirus crisis tells us it is possible to take urgent, costly and radical measures, and gives some hints as to how these can be accepted by the population.
De Perthuis C. (2020) «Comment le Covid-19 modifie les perspectives de l’action climatique», 2 April 2020. Online: https://www.chaireeconomieduclimat.org/publications/comment-le-covid-19-modifie-les-perspectives-de-laction-climatique/
Liebreich M. (2020) «Covid-19–The Low-Carbon Crisis», 26 April 2020. Online: https://about.bnef.com/blog/covid-19-the-low-carbon-crisis/
The Economist (2020) «The epidemic provides a chance to do good by the climate», 26 March 2020. Online: https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2020/03/26/the-epidemic-provides-a-chance-to-do-good-by-the-climate
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