Will the green agenda be killed off by the pandemic?

‘Will the green agenda be killed off by the longer-term coronavirus recovery? Or might the closure of so much business, and the cleaner air that results from planes not flying and factories not working, give us extra years to gain control of our environment?’

In the ancient history of a few months ago, before the coronavirus epidemic had caused the damage it now has to the global economy, 2020 was going to be the big green year—the time when half a decade of planning and investment since the 2015 Paris Agreement would finally put the world on track to stop global temperatures rising more than 2°C.

Things look very different now. Oddly enough, the coronavirus crisis has had some short-term environmental benefits. The canals of Venice are said to have become cleaner and greener without vaporettos running on them, and air quality in cities all over the world is better than it has been for decades now there are so few cars on the roads. But these are accidental by-products of large-scale destruction of human and economic capital. Submerged by the terrifying deluge of Covid-19 disaster stories, green media coverage of focused, intentional efforts to lower carbon emissions has all but disappeared.

The once-lively public discussion anticipating November’s planned climate summit in Glasgow, COP26—where the first “global stocktake” of progress made on halting climate change was to have happened and deals to go further in the next five years were to have been sealed—has fallen silent. The summit itself has been postponed to an undetermined date in 2021. Even the SEC conference centre where it was to have taken place is being converted into an emergency hospital for coronavirus victims.

In another, linked, blow to hopes that a low-carbon future was in reach, oil prices have plummeted. The causes are not only record supply and disappearing storage space but also the collapse in demand now coronavirus lockdowns have brought factories, offices and trade to a standstill and left workers sitting at home. The substantial, if fragile, momentum away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy that had given green planners so much hope in the past year, as better technology made renewable energy cheaper, is again in doubt, with fossil fuels now so cheap that the economics of switching to greener alternatives is no longer clear.

All this raises longer-term questions. The pessimistic one is this. Once the health crisis starts to recede and putting the global economy back together comes to the fore, will the green agenda be killed off by the longer-term coronavirus recovery? With fossil fuel prices now a bargain, will hard-pressed governments go for the quick fix of continuing to use them as they try to get their economies to work again? If so, will we be left open, a generation hence, to a climate catastrophe still more apocalyptic than today’s health crisis—but one that, unlike coronavirus, is not reversible? Or, more optimistically, might the closure of so much business, and the cleaner air that results from planes not flying and factories not working, give us extra years to gain control of our environment?

It’s likely that some lessons from this crisis could bring about real improvements in tackling climate change. Disruptions to manufacturing, now closed borders are interfering with long global supply chains of components, underscore the need to work towards the green goal of a circular economy, using fewer inputs of new raw materials and recycling more. There’s more of an argument for international cooperation, called into question by a recent trend towards national separation, as governments struggle with a virus that knows no borders. Working from home looks likely to gain ground, potentially easing problems associated with the relentless growth of traffic and congestion in ever-growing cities if there is less need to live near the workplace. And the experience of breathing cleaner air and hearing birdsong in cities could trigger longer-term local efforts at environmental clean-ups. But the recent drops in air pollution aren’t, experts say, any sort of big answer to the question of slowing climate change—the air will simply get dirtier again as soon as the current health crisis is over and planes and cars and factories start work.

And yet there needs to be a big answer, and soon, because there’s a very limited timeframe for action to limit climate change. To keep temperature rises to less than 2°C and if possible a more ambitious 1.5°C, what the countries that signed up to the Paris Agreement agreed to was that the world must be carbon-neutral by 2050. And, to achieve that, radical greening policies must be put in place in the next ten years.

With the clock ticking, yet with the global economy at a virtual standstill, the big
answer on climate change, experts say, will now have to come from the same economic stimulus packages being hastily assembled in advance of reaching the last stage of the coronavirus pandemic (following the current health crisis and the immediate economic crisis)—the longed-for longer-term recovery.

If the recovery stage is approached with vision, argues Nicholas Stern, the grand old man of climate-change thinkers, coming back from this crisis could also be the opportunity the world needs to turn around the longer-term and more dangerous climate crisis. “The rescue phase is not the moment where the story of environmental protection is dominant—now it’s rescuing people, saving lives. Then rescuing the economy, trying to prevent implosion, protecting vulnerable groups, sustaining employment. But then we can act to reduce climate change’s influence in a profound way,” he told an online economists’ seminar in April.

With this ambitious agenda in mind, the global clean energy sector is pushing hard for a recovery in which recovery funds come with “green strings attached”: persuasion, and incentives, to invest in clean technologies rather than polluting ones.

One sign of this ambition was the summit held on April 24 by 23 leading countries’ energy ministers and the International Energy Agency, to discuss how to put renewables at the centre of post-coronavirus recovery plans. Although China and the United States didn’t take part, Danish climate and energy minister Dan Jørgensen said after the meeting that the “contours of a green coalition” linking green industries and jobs to economic revival had emerged from the videoconference. He added: “We are facing a huge task of restoring the world’s economies, but at the same time it also provides an opportunity to set a new green course for the world.”

Likewise, within political Europe, the European Commission’s Green Deal chief, Frans Timmermans, told the European Parliament that “every euro we invest” in economic recovery must be linked to green and digital transitions.

And an April report by the International Renewable Energy Agency argued that speeding up investment in green energy could power an economic recovery from Covid-19, spurring huge economic benefits including GDP gains of almost $100tn (£80tn) between now and 2050, while helping to tackle the global climate emergency.

Many in the private sector are willing. Ignacio Galán, the chairman and CEO of the Spanish renewables giant Iberdrola, which owns Scottish Power, stated that his company would go on investing billions in renewable energy, along with networks and batteries to help integrate clean energy into the system. “A green recovery is essential as we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis. The world will benefit economically, environmentally and socially by focusing on clean energy,” he said. “Aligning economic stimulus and policy packages with climate goals is crucial for a long-term viable and healthy economy.”

But all this isn’t yet a done deal. Lord Stern, ex-chief economist at the World Bank and now professor of economics and government at LSE and Chairman of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, is quick to point out that we’re at a crossroads and could yet go into “deeper darkness”. “We know it can go either way. After World War One we had two decades of darkness without the strong leadership that was needed for recovery, but after World War Two it all picked up because we did have it. That means the obligation is put even more firmly on us.”

He wants the recovery from this crisis to be powered by “a new form of growth, more sustainable and resilient than in the past. We’ve learned about the enormous fragility of a society and economy that neglects its natural economy, creating conditions where this kind of virus can come into existence. And what we could do to ourselves with climate change is much bigger and more long-lasting. There’s no vaccine for the effects of climate change.”


This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.

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