OPINION: COVID-19 & the climate movement: We shouldn’t lose momentum now
An article on Global Landscape Forum put it best - “Procrastination, short-termism and scientific denial are the hallmarks of our inaction on climate change – but the coronavirus provides an opportunity for us to kick those long-standing habits”.
The coronavirus has demonstrated how dangerous it is when politicians choose to ignore science. Unlike "climate denial", the swift and tangible impact of the coronavirus pandemic on a global scale has made it near impossible to ignore, let alone deny.
One of the biggest challenges facing the climate movement is making the negative impact of planet-warming greenhouse gasses on the future of humanity more tangible to the layman. Only tangibility - like feeling loss, pain, fear or suffering - propels people to take decisive action.
Unfortunately, extreme weather events, wildfires, water scarcity and desertification have not been enough to convince die-hard capitalists that doing nothing will ultimately result in runaway climate change which will impact society, and future generations, in ways they couldn’t even imagine.
Climate change and the coronavirus are two invisible enemies common to all humans. If climate change is a slow cooker, then the coronavirus is a microwave. To beat them, we need to change our behaviour.
The only way we can win these battles is by flattening the curves. Climate activist and 350.org founder, Bill McKibben, said of the coronavirus: “a wall can’t keep out the COVID microbe, any more than it can knock down a CO2 molecule”.
Flattening the curve is something the environmental movement has been working hard at long before the coronavirus pandemic. In the climate context, it is a graph that models rising carbon emissions against predicted temperatures to ensure we keep below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
However, due to humanity’s slow response to this longer-term crisis, we have failed to flatten the curve and are now forced to play catch up. As a result, we have had to reduce carbon emissions by around 6% per annum to ensure we keep below this critical threshold.
To put this into perspective, it is predicted that the impact of COVID-19 will result in a 4% to 5% reduction in carbon emissions for this year. So, even with the "help" of the coronavirus, this year is the closest we have ever come to achieving our science-based target and we won’t even make it (to achieve an 80% reduction in current carbon emissions by 2050).
As the traffic and industrial engine died down, the reduction in pollution has allowed urban dwellers in China to breathe fresh air for the first time and to see further into the distance than ever before. Wildlife has also been given a short breather from their relentless exploitation.
In our blind pursuit of economic growth, this is the first time that we have declared a cease-fire in our self-defeating war against nature. Many are calling it a reawakening and a wake-up call for us to think deeply about the things we do and to do things differently.
If we look back at the economic recovery from the global financial crisis in 2008, climate and broader environmental movements benefited when carbon emissions dipped. However, the reprieve was only temporary as emissions continued to climb every year since. The question is, what trajectory will our curve take Post COVID 19?
The big difference between then and now is that there is a much more compelling business case to drive a green economy agenda. Coal-fired electricity is no longer the lowest cost form of electricity. Since 2008, the cost of solar, wind and other cleaner energies have become cheaper and technologies more efficient. There is also no denying the benefits of clean energies on the environment and the health of our communities.
Looking at how green innovation has progressed during this time has resulted in lower costs, greater efficiencies, and mature and proven technologies. This situation is fertile ground for planting some fresh green shoots.
Companies and governments are going to face a very real post-coronavirus choice. Either continue with ambitious Net Zero, science-based targets and embrace a green, low carbon economy or press pause and push for short term economic recovery and risk creating a bigger climate issue to deal with in the future.
There is a heightened level of awareness around the environment and climate change. Coupled with the groundswell of activism by consumers, citizens and investors, hardcore capitalists may find it challenging to wind back the clock.
While the 2008 global financial crisis forced us to adapt to having less, our lives continued as normal. With the coronavirus pandemic, the way we live and do business has changed overnight, giving us a glimpse of a lower stress and impact life.
We are proving that with the right tools, we can be even more efficient working from home. The need to travel for business or leisure has diminished, resulting in fewer cars on the roads and fewer flights. This change in behaviour alone has had a positive impact on carbon emissions and air quality, not to mention people’s stress levels.
Another interesting observation has been how ESG (environmental, social and governance) investment funds have outperformed conventional funds during this time and have shown more resilience during past financial crises. Both corporates and investors have realised that ESG is just good business and that development and cheaper finance will flow to companies who can demonstrate authentic ESG risk management strategies through transparent and verified disclosure.
The environmental recovery could easily just be a remission if politicians and corporations view the economic recovery of the coronavirus as an excuse to hit the pause button on bold climate response plans.
Governments and industries' resolve to cut emissions are also under threat. Airlines are already lobbying regulators to delay emissions-reduction goals due to the coronavirus. The European Union (EU) is also under pressure to abandon laws seeking net zero carbon emissions and focus instead on battling the outbreak.
There is no downplaying the devastating economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic - it has been commercial carnage out there with the livelihoods of millions of people destroyed overnight. However, rebuilding the economy does not have to be at the expense of losing pre-coronavirus momentum on climate action.
Ultimately it will come down to political and corporate leadership. Some will be pushing back while others push forward. The big difference is that what leaders do next will be strongly influenced by the will of the people.
It would be most unfortunate if we lost the climate action momentum to something that is relatively short-term as the coronavirus. There will be more viruses and recessions, but the climate change issue will outlive them all.
Kevin James is an eco-entrepreneur and sustainability professional with experience in strategic corporate sustainability as well as in the development of green, low carbon projects. He is the founder and CEO of GCX, a company that provides tools and expertise to large, complex organisations to set and track more ambitious environmental sustainability targets. He is also a non-executive director of Green Building Council South Africa.