The COVID-19 pandemic won’t be over anytime soon. Globally, the number of cases continues to rise dramatically. And even in countries which have brought COVID under control, new spikes in cases show just how fragile any post-lockdown situation can be. Our world has changed. The coronavirus has brought society to a standstill.
But one thing that is not standing still is the climate crisis. Climate breakdown will not wait for us to wrestle COVID to the ground. After a slight easing during lockdowns—5% on average globally in June—CO² emissions are rebounding with a vengeance.
From the COVID Frying Pan into the Climate Fire
A recent working paper from Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment claims that “The climate emergency is like the COVID-19 emergency, just in slow motion and much graver.” The paper notes the importance of public support for climate action and how the pandemic may dull the climate momentum going forward.
Public support for action on climate change increased to a peak prior to the pandemic; government and corporate action was also gathering momentum. COVID-19 has clearly slowed this momentum, not least in delaying the international conference on climate (COP26)from 2020 to 2021. — Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment
The pre-COVID momentum on climate will either find “new impetus” as we recalibrate our social and economic behaviour brought on by the pandemic or we will simply drift back to the old normal in spite of the wishful call for a green recovery. The “shape of COVID-19 fiscal recovery packages…will have a significant impact on whether globally agreed climate goals are met,” according to the Oxford paper. Recovery plans which fail to focus on low-carbon technologies but rather provide billions in bailouts for the fossil fuel sector will only lock us in a new high-carbon future.
And the longer we live with the pandemic, the more we see governments prioritising the economy more than the climate in their recovery plans. “Without decisive government intervention…emissions will rebound once the lockdowns end,” says the paper.
There are reasons to fear that we will leap from the COVID frying pan into the climate fire. — Hepburn, one of the authors of the paper
Only 4% of recovery policies are ‘green’
“Our subjective assessment is that 4% of policies are ‘green’, with potential to reduce long-run GHG emissions, 4% are ‘brown’ and likely to increase net GHG emissions beyond the base case, and 92% are ‘colourless’, meaning that they maintain the status quo”, notes the Oxford group. Bailouts—for airlines, the fossils, tourism, transportation—will either entrench the current fossil-fuel-intensive economic system or encourage the transition to a zero-carbon future.
As carbon emissions rebound coming out of lockdowns, there is a fear that they will exceed pre-pandemic levels thereby dimming any hope of reaching Paris Agreement climate goals. “There is the possibility [of emissions surging to well above pre-crisis levels] if the government incentives for boosting the economy are blind to climate change,” writes The Guardian.
All business-as-usual recovery packages that are not consistent with global climate change goals will only exacerbate the climate crisis by driving temperature increases well over the 1.5-2°C warming threshold of the Paris Agreement.
The Oxford paper authors end their work with this observation: “Recovery packages that seek synergies between climate and economic goals have better prospects for increasing national wealth, enhancing productive human, social, physical, intangible, and natural capital.” You can find the complete paper here.
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