Part 4: Reckoning with Climate Change
Updated: Oct 9
This is part four of T-CPI's four-part series that has focused on the links between COVID-19 and conservation through the lens of forests; oceans; wildlife trade and climate change.
Author: T-CPI community members, Abigail Croker and Sophie Locke
There is no vaccine coming for climate change - The World Bank, 2020
While the world has been haunted and dominated by COVID-19 and its immense impact on global economies, mean temperatures have continued to rise and extreme climate events have proliferated across nation-states – despite continued efforts to achieve the 1.5°C Paris Agreement goal. In 2019, we witnessed several local and national climate emergency declarations, prompted by staggeringly large climate protests in September that attracted millions of participants from over 180 countries. The global civil society had been galvanised into action, where collectively individuals from around the world had entered the political arena and realised their voices as non-political and multi-state decision-makers.
By 2020, progressing environmental, economic, and social ambition has been derailed as the world has been plunged into uncertainty as we battle a major health crisis that has reached every continent in the world (with the exception of Antarctica), whilst also being presented with the worst economic downturn since World War II. By mid-May, ~1/3 of the global population were ordered under full of partial lock-down, with service industries, businesses, manufacturers and trade – already impacted by the US-China trade war and deceleration of trade volume in 2019 – being forced to shut-down.
Has the climate change debate been silenced when time is precious and global ambition has never been more critical? In what position are we now left in to fight against rapid climate change? Like COVID-19, climate change transcends state borders, political systems, and economic and social structures. It is ubiquitous. However, like COVID-19, climate change disproportionately affects the vulnerable and fragile states, expediting existing eco-socio-economic inequalities and injustices and creating new challenges.
If by 2030 we have not cut greenhouse gas emissions by half globally, we will not be able to avoid devastating tipping points that would shatter the global economy and pose existential human threats. The costs of inaction are staggering — $600tn by the end of the century - Christiana Figueres and Benjamin Zycher for the Financial Times, 2020
This article explores some of the most recent figures that reveal changes in greenhouse gas emissions, how this pandemic has impacted climate action, and what this means for societies in the future.
COVID-19 and the impact on greenhouse gas emissions
There have been numerous figures reporting significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions during the height of the pandemic, where many nations enforced widespread lockdowns and only essential travel was permitted. In May, WEF reported a 17% decrease in the amount of carbon dioxide being released by human activity each day in early April, reflecting levels that were observed 14 years ago. In the same month, Nature stated that global carbon emissions had dropped by over 8%, "roughly three times the annual emissions for Italy". Most of which was caused by a significant decline in vehicle and electricity use. However, the same article has modelled three potential emission scenarios that are likely to eventuate as restrictions are gradually lifted.
As shown in the graph above, this reduction of emissions should not warrant lasting celebration and is unlikely to make a significant contribution towards achieving Paris Agreement targets. This transient dip in global greenhouse gas emissions could have long-lasting negative environmental impacts, contrary to popular belief. Not only has the climate change debate been diminished in the political arena, but the transition towards a green economy through the development and employment of green technology and renewable energy has also been delayed. The abrupt closure of factories and suspension of investment interests has hindered ambitions to accelerate innovations and scale-up existing technologies to achieve net-zero emissions in the energy sector.
People may be surprised to hear that the response to the coronavirus outbreak hasn’t done more to influence CO2 levels... But the buildup of CO2 is a bit like trash in a landfill. As we keep emitting, it keeps piling up. The crisis has slowed emissions, but not enough to show up perceptibly at Mauna Loa. What will matter much more is the trajectory we take coming out of this situation. - Professor Ralph Keeling, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where a sharp rise in carbon dioxide readings was recorded at the Mauna Loa observatory in the US.
Climate action during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic
While the advancement of climate policy and our transition to a green economy has been impacted, has this pause in activity allowed any time for decision-makers to consider the best next steps? Has this shock-to-the-system thrown us into an opportunistic and ambitious mindset? There are several hopeful results emerging from this global crisis:
Social protection systems
The World Bank has suggested that social protection systems that are being put through their paces have proven their potential, helping the most vulnerable communities ‘build back better’. These systems are likely to play an instrumental role in ensuring countries and communities that are vulnerable to climate change can responsibly efficiently and effectively. One case study in Indonesia demonstrated how social protection can help vulnerable communities to abandon livelihoods tied to destructive practises such as logging, an industry clearly linked to climate change.
“Social protection systems help the poor and vulnerable cope with crises and shocks, find jobs, invest in the health and education of their children, and protect the ageing population.” The World Bank
A recent survey showed that 71% of global respondents agreed that “in the long term, climate change is as serious as a crisis as COVID-19”. Behavioural changes have also been observed, where according to Dr Ajay Gambhir from the Grantham Institute, Imperial College, scientific experts are now significantly informing public policy. This is important as trust among scientific experts, including within the climate science field, has declined and eroded over time. Society’s ability to rapidly adapt to new and required behaviour changes, such as ditching our typical commute to work for a home office and Zoom meetings, is a promising sign for how quickly we must address climate change. Gambhir also stresses the importance of maintaining resilience and flexibility “in the face of deep uncertainty.”
Nature-based climate solutions and restoration
The High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy state that investing in a “blue recovery” plan would help nations ‘build back better’ due to the immense economic benefits of ending overfishing and reforming harmful fisheries subsidies; the falling price of renewables such as offshore wind; job generation and wider co-benefits associated with restoring blue carbon habitats (e.g. mangroves) and the long-term benefit of decarbonising the international shipping trade.
A Green New Deal and stimulus packages
The World Resources Institute (WRI) have also reported on a number of promising actions, including the development of a €750 billion European Green Deal that would promote significant investments into the protection and restoration of critical ecological habitats, specifically those that act as carbon sinks. However, a Green New Deal (GND) is neither a bill nor a policy or legislative proposal. A GND is a resolution, a utopian imaginary that outlines the actions we need to take to solve climate change whilst acknowledging that a transition away from fossil fuels must be just and equitable. In April 2020, the European Parliament voted to place the GND at the centre of the EU’s recovery and reconstruction package, invigorating hope and opportunity in a just social, environmental, and economic post-COVID order. As countries attempt to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and inject huge amounts of money into stimulus packages, it’s worth noting that a significant proportion of these recovery programmes are likely to exacerbate climate change and existing environmental problems, excluding the European Commission, France, the UK and Germany, as highlighted by the WRI’s graph below.
Political landscape and potential strategies
The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated the inadequacies and exploitative manoeuvres of our current global neo-liberal capitalist system, whereby labour exists as a commodity and the commodity are subject to hostile market forces dominated by western hegemony. Supply chain networks have been exposed, revealing the inextricably interlinked and inequitable components of the modern globalised system and its negative externalities.
Whilst the geopolitical landscape has greatly altered as a result of COVID-19, states worldwide have had the opportunity to realise these fundamental flaws, constructing recovery plans that strive for an environmentally, socially, and economically just and equal world. Whilst power has been temporarily diverted back to nation-states, the intangibility of multi-national businesses and corporations has been resisted, making progress towards an accountable and responsible post-COVID order. Strategies such as carbon consumption pricing and taxation, along with a reduction in fossil fuel subsidies, should be adopted to negate interest in low oil prices and eliminate the risk of cross-border carbon leakage, treating all fossil-fuel producers equally regardless of their origin’s jurisdiction. Such strategies will advance progress towards a new accountable global system, addressing the dual challenges presented by environmental breakdown and a world-wide economic recession.
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them - Albert Einstein
Climate action at the individual level
It's so easy to lose hope in the face of the formidable climate change challenge. Even our clearly defined targets and goals that have been embedded within global policies seem distant and unattainable. On top of this, the world has been shoved into uncertainty and distress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The financial and emotional changes that have followed the disruption and upheaval of our everyday activities, our future plans, and for some, our careers, have left many feeling overwhelmed and burnt out. How can humans come together and ensure we are driving forward constructive action not only in the face of a changing climate but a pandemic? We might not have all the answers, but there are certainly a few steps we can explore to get started as an individual.
1. For a great overview of individual actions you can take today, explore the UN’s ActNow page. This is a useful resource hub that can help you make conscious decisions through your everyday activities and purchases.
2. As technology develops and countries transition towards their net-zero targets, there will be a significant opportunity to create thousands of new ‘green jobs’. One report by Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz and climate economist Lord Nicholas Stern found that projects that reduced carbon emissions “create more jobs deliver higher short-term returns for the money spend and lead to increased long-term savings compared to traditional fiscal stimulus.” While this may not be an individual-level action to take, for those whose career paths have been disrupted due to COVID-19, it’s worth keeping tabs on climate policy and stimulus packages that will favour a green recovery and stimulate new, green jobs.
3. If you're able to, try to get away from it all by immersing yourself into nature and venturing outdoors. Perhaps this won't be a sprawling national park or secret coastal coves, maybe the only viable option is your local park. Time spent in nature is a recommended option for those seeking a remedy for eco-anxiety, grief and uncertainty, with research showing it can significantly improve our mental health. While it may not be direct climate action, this step is critical. As the UK heard from NHS Director, Stephen Powis, the fight against COVID-19 will be a marathon, not a sprint. The same could be said about climate change and ensuring we're united and fit for this fight is critical.
What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make - Dr Jane Goodall, Scientist & Activist