As vigorous economic plans are being laid out to ensure a holistic recovery following the adverse effects of the coronavirus pandemic, environmental sustainability and the issue of global warming and climate change is one of central priority. Climate change, which encompasses the complex changes occurring to the world’s climatic patterns, is one of the most pressing issues facing humanity today. Climate change is a result of the increased concentration of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, which have been a by-product of the exponential rise in the human population and our processes of industrialization. The heat-trapping components of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, contribute to rising global mean temperatures (global warming), which subsequently affects patterns of extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and changing habitats. The coronavirus period has provided a lot of time for reflection about the progress that has been achieved so far in terms of the battle against climate change. There has also been a lot of talk around how the world can rebound more sustainably and lay a solid foundation for the growth of a sustainable society. How could this “green recovery” look like?
Before the pandemic struck, efforts towards mitigating the causes of climate change were gaining momentum as several nations around the world were sticking to the goals set in, for example, the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Unfortunately, the relatively sufficient progress made in only a handful of countries was not going to be enough. When examining the world as a whole, we were seriously falling short of meeting the targets set in the accord. For example, in order to keep the average global temperature from going 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures, emissions would need to be halved by 2030. As of November 2019, initiatives taken by 130 out the 194 nations who signed the agreement were considered to be insufficient. This also includes four of the five most pollutive countries. 2019 and 2020 were also officially recognised as two of the warmest years on record according to data collected by NASA, so before the coronavirus struck, we were not properly en route to fulfilling our climate pledges
Lockdown is Masking Environmental Problems
Once Covid was declared as a global pandemic and restrictions were implemented all across the world that kept people at home, human activity changed almost overnight. Previously heavily-trafficked urban streets became almost vehicle-free, restaurant owners reluctantly hung up the CLOSED sign, and prosperous airlines were forced to ground their planes at the now desolate airports. This naturally led to a decline in greenhouse gas emissions from human economic activity. For instance, the transportation industry is one of the main contributors to global warming, and in Europe it accounts for 27% of total greenhouse gas emissions (European Environmental Agency). Breaking this industry down into air travel and ground travel, the first half of 2020 saw a 34% and 15% reduction respectively in CO2 emissions compared to the same period in 2019 according to data from the Carbon Monitor. If the economy as a whole is accounted for, a 7.5% reduction in CO2 emissions was observed in the same period. Along with a lower quantity of emissions, air quality has improved as pollution across the world’s cities has dwindled.
While it can be argued that some of these indicators point to the fact that the lockdown period has been somewhat beneficial for the environment, it should be remembered that any “benefits” will only be short-lived. In other words, the positive numbers on emissions are only masking the greater issue at hand, and they should not be considered as a win in the fight against climate change. Once economic activity proceeds in a more normal fashion, the challenges that existed before will return. CO2 emissions are already on the rise again, and other issues such as the haphazard disposal of hundreds of millions of facemasks are posing additional threats.
It has been noted that many companies have been forced to abandon certain environmental goals in order to first-and-foremost prioritise their own survival. From a business standpoint, this is understandable, but it will be necessary for firms and governments worldwide to revive environmental agendas and to recognize the positive economic implications of mitigating causes of global warming and preserving the natural environment.
Potential for a Greener Recovery
When planning for an economic recovery following the lockdown period, the opportunity of creating jobs and growth while simultaneously guiding our society towards renewable energy dependence has arisen. It will naturally require immense investment and willpower, but perhaps this is the one shot that we have to fully commit to this long-overdue transformation. The benefits of a green recovery are enormous, and it will contribute to an overall greater resilience of our economies in the future.
Sweden for one has identified that a “green transition” is paramount in their recovery process. In addition to already being credited as one of the leading countries in terms of sustainability, a press release from the Government Offices of Sweden has announced that a unique opportunity has presented itself in the midst of the global health crisis to, for example, invest into more sustainable transportation and to develop an even greener industry. Not only will initiatives to make industry and other parts of the economy more environmentally sustainable naturally lead to lowered emissions, it is also important in promoting job growth. It is projected that public investments in green solutions will lead to strong job growth, both in Sweden and in other countries.
For this reason, 30 OECD countries have already adopted stronger policies aimed at greenifying their recovery strategies. A lot of emphasis is placed on the circular economy and clean energy, and now that renewable energy alternatives are becoming more accessible and cheaper, they can begin to truly compete with the long-favoured fossil fuels. The International Renewable Energy Agency has estimated that the clean energy sector can create 2.5 million new jobs annually if the recovery process unfolds in favour of it, something that can act as part of the solution to the unemployment observed today. This moment in time may be the best chance the world has to tackle the complex problem of climate change in order to ensure that future generations are able to thrive in a more socially, economically and environmentally resilient world.