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 Olivia Oldham
The Agriculture Bill
Earlier this month, the UK’s new Agriculture Bill, an important piece of legislation that sets out post-Brexit law for the food system, passed its 3rd reading in the House of Commons. Unfortunately, despite advocacy from sustainable farming organisations such as the Landworkers’ Alliance and the Soil Association, an amendment requiring imported food to meet the same standards as British producers was dropped.
So what does this mean? For British farmers, it means they will be more easily undercut by imported products, which have not had to adhere to the same standards of production, and which will therefore be less expensive. For those who want to farm in ways that exceed the minimum legal requirements--who want to actively contribute to the regeneration of the land and the wellbeing of animals and consumers, this effect will be even more stark.
The Bill, if passed, will also likely contribute to nutritional inequality amongst eaters here in the UK. As mentioned in a previous blog, a 2019 Parliamentary Select Committee report found that between 1.97 and 3 million people in the UK are undernourished. Unsurprisingly, poverty is described as a major cause of malnutrition and food insecurity. What is not mentioned by the report, though, is the relationship between race and socioeconomic deprivation--according to government statistics, Black people and Asian people are the most likely to live in the most socioeconomically deprived areas of the country, while White people are the least likely to do so. In the United States, the situation of food injustice is so severe that it is referred to as ‘food apartheid’.
In this context, it is predominantly wealthy and, correlatedly, white, people who are able to afford to support farmers and producers trying to do the right thing by nature and by their workers, and whose produce is often more expensive due to the increased costs of producing food this way. With the passage of the Bill, these producers may be forced to put their prices up to survive, thanks to competition from lower quality exports. The result? Fewer and fewer people will be able to afford to buy food produced in this way, and more and more eaters will be driven to consume cheaper, lower quality imports in a vicious cycle which segregates society into two nutritional classes: those fortunate few able to buy sourdough from their local bakery and fresh vegetables from their farmers market, and everyone else.
Thirdly, for non-British farmers, this Bill effectively signals the outsourcing of ecological destruction. It allows Britain to stand up on the international stage and announce its adherence to the strong environmental and welfare standards in farming, while at the same time permitting and encouraging damaging and harmful practices to continue abroad. In this way, the UK benefits from improved soil quality and higher animal welfare at home, while continuing to allow and perpetuate their degradation abroad.
The Wuhan wild animal ban
Meanwhile, soon after the third reading of the Agriculture Bill, the local administration in Wuhan announced a ban on eating and hunting wild animals within its sphere of influence. Breeders of wild animals are being offered a pay-out as an incentive to cease their activities. But while this ban recognises and attempts to address the likely direct source of the virus (that is, a wild animal such as a bat or pangolin sold at a wet market), it completely fails to address the more remote factors that led to the growth of wild animal farming in the first place. According to Spinney, the increase in industrial food production in China in the 1990s as part of the country’s rapid transition to a market economy pushed small-scale farmers out, both economically and geographically. For many, the alternative that enabled them to survive was to begin farming wild animals. Their farms were located closer and closer to forested areas inhabited by bats, increasing the likelihood that viruses might be transmitted from these wild populations to the newly farmed ‘wild’ animals.
There are those who contest that the virus even originated at the infamous wet market, including the authors of a paper published in Nature Medicine in March. They claim it is possible that the virus evolved in an animal host living in circumstances of high population density, such as pangolins or civets, but also sheep, goats and pigs, among others. Hubei Province is one of the five largest producers of pigs in China; and as described above, small scale farms have been replaced in recent years by large-scale industrial operations containing thousands of genetically uniform pigs, confined in high-density, enclosed environments--perfect conditions for the rapid mutation and evolution of a zoonotic virus (that is, that jumps from a non-human to a human) such as Covid-19.
What this means is that it is possible that the source of Covid is not the much-vilified wet markets or the survival strategies of smallholders, but rather the expansion of industrial agriculture. And this expansion has been driven not only by internal changes to the Chinese economy, but by foreign investment; for example, after the great recession in the late 2000s, Goldman Sachs invested heavily in Chinese poultry farms.
What does any of this have to do with the UK’s failure to maintain high import standards in its Agriculture Bill? In a nutshell, they are two examples of how the global North is trying to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to the environmental and welfare standards of agriculture. Increasingly, Western consumers push for regulatory protections of the environment in agriculture, such as through laws enshrining high welfare standards for livestock, or promoting on-farm biodiversity through measures such as the banning of glyphosate (the main chemical in the common herbicide Round-Up). But at the same time, we fail to address and indeed encourage the perpetuation of these self-same problems in the majority world through measures such as uneven import standards (as in the Agriculture Bill) or investment (as with the investment in Chinese pig farms), or both. The end result is both domestic and global food and environmental inequality and injustice.
What, then, shall we do?
Alternatives do exist, though. The UK Agriculture Bill still needs to go through the House of Lords before it can become law. There is still the chance, then, to achieve a positive end-result. This is critically important: we need, where we are able, to engage as food citizens--that is, as people who have the interdependent power to shape and participate in the food system as more than just passive consumers in a “linear supply chain”.
Beyond lobbying Parliament, those of us who are fortunate enough to have the means can also support local producers who are trying to make food in ways that are good for the environment, socially just and nutritionally sound. Numerous initiatives have sprung up in response to Covid-19 and the weaknesses it has exposed in the industrial food model and the supermarket supply chains that support it. For example, Farms to Feed Us is a project that has created a database of regenerative producers who have started (and many who already were) selling food directly to their communities during this crisis. Where we can, we should support these initiatives and the farmers and producers they are lifting up; and we should do this not only now, but we should keep doing it once the moment of crisis has passed.
Thinking more broadly, we can also stand in solidarity with food sovereignty movements around the world. La Via Campesina, for example, is an international organisation fighting for the rights of people across the globe to produce their own food in an environmentally sustainable and culturally appropriate way. It fights giant industrial agriculture projects like those which likely contributed to the Covid-19 outbreak, and which are creating misery for people and animals around the world. The Landworkers Alliance are members of LVC in the UK--supporting their work is incredibly important, now more than ever.
Food is political, and to pretend that it isn’t directly contributes to the injustice of the status quo. To this end, if we care about a fair and regenerative food system, we need to accept that it’s about more than only food: it’s about social justice more broadly. Only when all people live with dignity--and this includes being able to afford good, nutritious food for their families--can we consider the goal of fixing the food system to have been achieved.
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.