By Bridget Stuart
It is a fact that we need to limit the increase in global temperatures to below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as soon as possible, but certainly before 2050. When I say ‘we’, I mean the governments of the world, and in particular the governments of wealthy countries in the Global North, who have particular responsibility for both causing the problem, and therefore for solving it. Unfortunately, it is already too late to prevent dangerous climate change, and it is unlikely the 1.5 degrees target will be achieved. Therefore, the more pertinent question asked by the climate scientist Kevin Anderson is how long we have between dangerous climate change and extremely dangerous climate change .
COVID-19 has created a mean 7% decline in CO2 emissions, as well as a decline in other toxic air pollutants from the transport and industrial sectors . Unfortunately, it appears that this decline will only be temporary, and that emissions will rebound as the economy does. For example, China’s emissions have already rebounded past their 2019 levels . However, this need not be the case if countries work to ‘build back better’ and create a just transition to a low-carbon, green economy.
This is where the ‘green recovery’ comes in. In their recovery packages responding to the pandemic-induced economic crisis, many governments have included ‘green recovery’ measures. Such measures include investments, grants and loans for projects directed at improving green transport, clean energy, the circular economy, and research & development. Other initiatives focus on creating green jobs, and the conservation of ecosystems. The OECD estimates the overall funds directed towards 'green recovery' programmes currently total USD312 billion, with the focus being predominantly directed towards the energy and transport sectors. For example, Boris Johnson has promised a £12billion government investment, with a potential private sector of three times that amount, projected to create 250,000 green jobs .
However, the announced green recovery packages remain insufficient. It has been estimated that an investment of USD6.3 trillion will be needed annually until 2030, a figure far beyond what has currently been promised . This, coupled with widespread lack of ambition in implementation and the active rolling back of existing environmental regulations to bolster the failing fossil-fuel industry in some countries, the outlook is far from promising. Therefore, it is important that countries’ progress is monitored to ensure accountability and that they actually implement the pledges they have made.
It is important that countries who are able to do so set strong examples and show a concerted effort to tackle climate change. The USA re-joining the Paris Agreement under the Biden administration and its renewed presence at COP26 next year could be a real symbol of change. If the USA invest enough money in R&D innovation projects, this could herald a new suite of green technology advances.
To leverage real sustained green change in the long-term, we need to invest in a workable Green New Deal (GND) within G20 economies. As individuals, we must be sure to use our electoral power to vote in the governments and policies which have a sincere focus on a GND. Fortunately, Biden’s election in the US does shine out as a beacon of hope in this respect.
It is also important to highlight that the green recovery will look very different depending on the country. For countries in the Global South, the focus will be primarily on alleviating poverty and suffering through sustainable methods. However, international economic assistance may be necessary for green initiatives to be feasible. In light of the inequality of historical emissions’ and colonial legacies, international acts of climate justice must be woven into the cloth of the green recovery. For example, Biden’s proposed ‘Green Marshall Plan’ or the UK’s £64 million package to support Colombia to combat deforestation and build back a cleaner economy in the wake of the pandemic, could be good places to start.
Overall, we need to speed-up a rapid, yet just transition to a low-emissions, green economy. COVID-19 has been and continues to be a great threat to humankind and has required unprecedented collective action to fight it. Miraculously, through a period of extreme suffering, it seems as if the world may have overcome it. However, climate change represents a threat on an incomparable order of magnitude. It is here, and we can no longer discount or ignore it. In this immediate post-COVID era, there is a unique opportunity not just for a recovery but for a transformation towards a green, inclusive and socially just future.
Summary by Bridget Stuart
This week, we heard from Dr. Fatih Birol, the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA). Dr Birol’s spoke on the impact of COVID on the energy sector, and the Green Recovery of the future.
The global pandemic has led to the biggest shock to the energy industry since WWII, causing a decline more than 7 times larger than the 2008 financial crash. Fortunately, it is fossil fuels which have been hit the hardest, and renewable energies, such as wind or solar have actually proven to be relatively ‘COVID immune’. There has also been a 7% drop in emissions, thanks to the pandemic—the deepest decline in decades. However, there is a real risk that emissions will rebound with the economy and this decline will only be temporary.
This means that the next 3 years will be a ‘make or break’ period in determining whether countries will meet their 2050 net-zero goals. Recovery policies and economic packages centring on renewables will be essential in facilitating this. These policies must be aimed at maximising energy efficiency, improving pre-existing energy grids, and developing innovative technologies.
The questions considered green stimulus packages, the geopolitics of energy, COP26, OPEC countries, individual action and policy-making in emerging economies.
By Bridget Stuart
On April Fool’s Day 2020 it was announced that COP26 was being postponed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. This vital climate conference, which was to bring 30,000 delegates from across the world to Glasgow on 9th – 19th November, has now been moved to an unspecified date in 2021. COP26 promised to be the most important climate conference since Paris 2015, so there has been much debate over what this means for climate action worldwide.
Obviously, the postponement of COP26 poses some major issues. It narrows the window in which nations can review and update their post-2020 Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), delaying vital progress on emissions. This brings us ever-closer to the point of no return, beyond which there is no hope of limiting the global average temperature rise to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Also, the global economy is in ruins, and there is the very real threat that nations will use the pandemic to cut back on their environmental commitments. Donald Trump’s government has already begun to do this, revoking a number of environmental standards implemented by the Obama administration.
Postponing COP26 was necessary, and the right thing to do in the interests of public health and safety. But the situation highlights the strong and somewhat ironic parallels between COVID-19 and climate change. These are both global crises, putting every human life in danger. In both cases, global governments knew full-well what the potential impacts were, and yet failed, for the most part, to act with sufficient speed or intensity. Both crises also put the inequality inherent in our society into harsh perspective. In fact, COVID-19 has given us a glimpse into our future, one in which we face economic, societal and environmental collapse. But this could be the wake-up call we need and act as a catalyst for great change.
So, it is imperative that this extra time in the run-up to COP26 is put to use. The UK government, who many feared was not ready to lead the talks in November, now has the time to fully prepare. Globally, nations can increase their climate ambitions, ramp up their commitments and solidify their road-maps for the future. There is also time now for the world to recover slightly in the wake of COVID-19 and for all parties to fully refocus on climate breakdown.
A crucial benefit of the postponement is that COP26 will no longer be overshadowed by the US Presidential election or the USA’s recent departure from the 2015 Paris Agreement, which is currently due to take legal effect on November 4th. In fact, there is now the opportunity for a new US President to re-establish climate leadership and re-enter the Paris agreement. This would be a major boost for the talks next year.
So, perhaps delaying COP26 is a blessing in disguise. The economic and societal collapse resulting from this global pandemic presents a unique opportunity. What is clear is that we can never go back to ‘business as usual’. We should regrow our economy and restructure our society in a way that is sustainable and resilient, and, crucially, that extends strong support to the developing world.
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.