Photo: Sergio Rodriguez – Portugues del Olmo/Unsplash.
“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” These are the words of Rahm Emmanuel, Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff, following the 2008 global financial crisis. They ring eerily true for the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Climate change has always seemed like an existential threat. But the drastic impact of this pandemic has woken up many citizens to the consequences of environmental degradation and climate inaction. Focusing on climate change right now may appear to be diverting attention from the mounting humanitarian and economic costs of the pandemic. Except that Lancet and WHO have stated that climate change is likely to increase the incidence of infectious disease outbreaks. Continued climate inaction therefore heightens the risk of future pandemics.
Some have found hope for the planet in the viral images of nature rebounding while humans remain in lockdown. Indeed, China’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions fell by 25% over a month while its cities remained in lockdown. Other cities around the world – from Delhi to Venice – are witnessing clearer air and water for the first time in decades. But what happens once human activity resumes?
We could take cues from past global crises. After the 2008 financial crisis for instance, global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production fell 1.4% in 2009. However, with economic stimulus resources disproportionately allocated to polluting industries, emissions rebounded to 5.9% in 2010. There is a danger of history repeating itself as governments scramble to announce economic stimulus plans in response to COVID-19.
International climate collaboration likely to falter
The COP26 climate summit – due to be held in November 2020 in Glasgow – has been postponed by a year. This could disrupt international climate collaboration at a time when, under the Paris Agreement, countries were expected to ramp up their pledges to reduce emissions. The European Union, the de facto leader in international climate negotiations, is being hit especially hard by the virus and looking at a long-drawn, costly recovery. In the face of the pandemic, the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic has urged the EU to ditch the European Green Deal, a plan that commits EU member states to zero emissions by 2050. A deputy minister in Poland also requested the EU to put its emissions trading scheme on hold.
Governments in developing countries will also face immense pressure to revive economic growth. China has already announced its intention to unleash a trillion-yuan fiscal stimulus in infrastructure spending to revive its economy, some of which is likely to fund carbon-intensive projects. Beijing also indicated that it will relax environmental oversight of companies in response to COVID-19. This is a mistake since its 25% temporary decline in emissions will be negated by a stimulus plan that fails to invest in clean energy. In fact, as its factories resume production, satellite images show that the air pollution that fell in vast swathes of China during the peak of the outbreak has started to come back.
The race to stimulate the global economy without climate action at its core will only leave countries more vulnerable to extreme weather events and future pandemics.
Preparing for a race to the bottom
As the green movement falters, the fossil fuel industry appears to be gearing up for a race to the bottom. Despite a sharp fall in oil demand following the coronavirus outbreak, major oil producers like Saudi Arabia, announced plans to expand their production. Although the resulting 50% drop in crude oil prices will harm its own finances, the Gulf nation appears to be aggressively monetising its assets in anticipation of future climate regulations. Saudi Aramco, in a 2019 prospectus had warned that oil demand might peak within 20 years. Although low oil prices will benefit importing countries, it is likely to delay the transition to electric vehicles.
According to Bloomberg, the global car market is set to be hit particularly hard by COVID-19, which “will have ramifications for electric vehicles and battery demand”. In China, sales of passenger electric vehicles dropped off by 77% in February compared to the same month last year. Similarly, global supply chains for solar, wind and energy storage industries have been severely disrupted. Although solar and wind energy prices are now competitive with fossil fuels, the IEA has warned that the coronavirus will weaken global investments in clean energy and broader efforts to reduce emissions. Governments must resist bailing out companies in heavy industries, such as oil and gas, airlines and automotive, and instead use the pandemic as an opportunity to transition to a low-carbon economy.
What happens next depends on governments
The $2 trillion stimulus bill passed by the US Congress lacked funding for clean energy and instead allocated $60 billion for the carbon-intensive airline industry. Although many will argue that the stimulus only intended to bailout distressed sectors and protect jobs, the lack of conditionality (such as airlines going carbon-neutral by 2050) indicates that the US is unlikely to decarbonise its economy. To worsen matters, the Donald Trump administration subsequently weakened Obama-era fuel economy standards, which will undermine long-standing efforts to reduce transport emissions. In contrast, South Korea’s ruling party hasn’t let COVID-19 deter it from announcing a Green New Deal on March 16, which aims to make the country a net-zero carbon economy by 2050.
Experts are forecasting a worldwide economic recession in 2020. Weak global growth could make leaders hesitant in taking climate action. But this could be their best chance to leverage increased public awareness to implement an ambitious climate agenda. Governments drive over 70% of global energy investments, and a targeted economic stimulus could both revive economic growth and accelerate the clean energy revolution. Leaders must treat climate change with renewed urgency, or COVID-19 might not be the ‘once-in-a-century’ pandemic it is claimed to be. We must not let this serious crisis go to waste.
Siddharth Goel is the founder and CEO of Rethinking Public Policy, a South Asia-focused public policy consulting firm. He specialises in energy, environment and climate change issues, and writes about innovative public policy ideas on his blog.
The pandemic’s higher public awareness is a chance to implement better climate agenda