Climate actions should not be postponed due to Covid-19, both crises are threats to us all
16 April 2020
The novel coronavirus or Covid-19 has shown us how interconnected we are and how fragile the global economic system is. Since its first identification in Wuhan, China in mid-December last year, the virus has spread rapidly to almost every county in the world and become a pandemic. It has now brought billions of people into lockdown, has infected close to 1.3 million people and caused close to 80,000 deaths and still rising by early April. The virus continues to spread and if not addressed soon it could infect two-thirds or 60% of the global population according to estimates.
The pandemic has happened on top of the climate emergency that is already impacting lives, livelihoods and territories, especially in the global south. Vanuatu, a small island state and one of the most climate vulnerable countries despite having the lowest level of greenhouse emissions identified by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), has just been devastated by a level 5 cyclone. Both crises are starkly revealing that the world’s political and economic leaders are incapable of learning lessons from past crises and are woefully unprepared to face current ones.
Faulty measures by the UK government at the onset of the pandemic and its continuing incapacity to render a quick upgrade to our overwhelmed, underfunded and desperate public health system is resulting in massive confusion, insecurity and threat. At a global level, the expected economic recession will result in more hardships especially in poor countries. Meanwhile, trillion-dollar bailouts for capital are already being prepared and allotted. The pandemic lays bare why huge national and global crises cannot be left to governments alone to resolve, especially if they are neoliberal, racist, undemocratic and elitist.
Global attention shift from global warming to Covid-19 pandemic
According to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, “the novel coronavirus pandemic is now the world’s top priority and that climate change will have to be put on the back burner for now.” A series of meetings to address the climate emergency have already been cancelled, including the 26th Conference of Parties under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26) which was due to be held in Glasgow this coming November.
Both crises impact on global inequalities and unequal relationships and are interconnected. The underlying economic conditions that have made most of the world economies helpless while the pandemic crisis takes its toll, whether in the global north or the global south, are the same ones that have put many species and the planet in general at great risk of extinction due to climate change. Poverty and precarity, especially in the global south are created by over-accumulation, destructive extractives operations of mining and agro-businesses, the subordination of society to market rules and privatisation of our basic services.
The planet is taking a break, but we need to ensure that when this is over, we will not go back to normal as that normal brought the climate emergency and this pandemic in the first place. Many reports point at the dramatic reduction in emissions and pollution in China when the second biggest economy closed its cities, plants and factories in January and February to halt the spread of Covid-19. But, the fact that manufacturing in China ground to a halt resulted too in a lack of our basic medical supplies here in the UK. The logic of the global supply chain where production and resulting emissions are exported to where human rights and labour are suppressed and undervalued should change.
Upbeat stories of pollution-free cities due to lockdown are showing us that our world could heal if there are less flights, cars and industrial manufacturing. We need to understand early on, though, that global carbon emissions tend to bounce back after a global crisis. It happened after the financial crisis in 2008-9 and the oil crisis in the 1970s and it will also happen with this current one. It needs to be highlighted too that this time the global drop in emissions is happening while huge loss of lives is also happening. This time the economic loss will be even more massive than in the 2008 financial crisis.
We cannot go back to normal as that normal is death
Instead of going back to normal or slowing down climate actions because resources are needed to address the economy after the pandemic, governments should speed up climate actions. We need to continue reducing emissions as that is the only way to save us and the planet. These must be considered:
- The cancelled COP26 is the stock-taking meeting where governments would review their pledges to reduce emissions under the Paris Agreement. Current non-binding targets made in 2015 by governments for emission reduction will not meet the target of limiting global temperature rise to under 1.5°C. The pandemic showed that many policies deemed impossible before could become real. The much needed “impossibles” in climate ambitions and actions should now be carried out in the same way that the current pandemic is being addressed.
- The coronavirus pandemic slowed down the renewable energy markets for solar, battery and electric vehicles, which are important to the transition to clean energy. While the world is bracing for the pandemic, mining for fossil fuels and other minerals has continued. It is crucial that the financing necessary to speed up public renewable energy projects is ensured during and after the pandemic.
- Governments in Europe and other members of the G7 have already rolled out trillions for stimulus packages to address the pandemic. Money has also been pouring out to bail out fossil fuel industries, aviation and other polluting sectors. A just transition must include support for workers in these industries, but governments also have an opportunity to use the leverage of these bailouts to reorient those industries in line with climate commitments. Instead, the aviation industry has been lobbying against any such conditions. Meanwhile renewable energy industries also need support, including crucial tax credit extensions for solar and wind energy sectors, expansion of renewable energy ambitions, steps for just transition and upgrading of health services worldwide.
- The pandemic is a wake-up call to stop transnational corporations and agri-business’s war with nature. It shows what happens when humans continue to destroy wildlife and their habitats. Mega-projects like large-scale mining, deforestation and unsustainable extraction of resources should stop.
- A global Green New Deal, degrowth, and other systemic alternatives must be adopted and implemented. We need a new economic paradigm that will correct the successive waves of fiscal adjustments and maldevelopment policies that have destroyed our ecology, curtailed environmental protection laws, and weakened labour rights and social protection schemes. Solving the climate crisis means totally changing our system of production, consumption, trade and relations between countries as well as relations between humans and nature.
There will be a big difference between the Before Covid-19 and After Covid-19 pandemic world. The end scenario after this will be shaped by the new dominant perspective or ‘common sense’ that is forming within and beyond policy processes and circles. The global climate justice movement is steps ahead in terms of thinking on, advocating for and the practice of systemic alternatives. Many of the elements and inspirations for systemic alternatives that are now globally known came from climate justice movements and many are what southern movements had been calling for – debt cancellation and recognition of the climate debts of the global north, rights of nature, just transition, etc.
The battle for a post-pandemic society are as much theoretical and ideological as they are political. Temporary emergency measures could become permanent fixtures of life.
Some might be about those we have been advocating for years, like nationalisation of services, which could be fast-forwarded because of the emergency. We don’t need to revert back to the economy of the past, we have a golden opportunity to change our governments’ priorities, alter social and power relations and increase the level of ambition for the future. Reconnecting economies to what people need instead of extreme profit creation may not bring back what the world has lost in this crisis, but they could prevent the next one from happening.
The world we want after the pandemic is post-extractives, climate just, and sustainable.