Covid-19 Environment Politics The World After Covid

The World After Covid: Climate Change

In this series of articles, The International explores the ways in which Covid-19 has changed the course of our planet’s history. In this second piece, our editor-in-chief Adam Bennett examines how the climate crisis has been reshaped by the pandemic.

“Today, dolphins can be seen swimming in the newly-clear waters of Venice. As people stay away from the tourist hotspot, nature is beginning to claim it back!”

So reports one viral social media post celebrating Covid-19’s apparently positive impact on the environment. Whilst the story about dolphins swimming up and down Venice’s canals is (if we’re being generous) something of a half-truth, one doesn’t need to look far to find stories of how the natural world is thriving amid humanity’s lockdown. 

In New Delhi, for example, residents are enjoying clear skies above what was previously one of Earth’s most-polluted cities. In the UK, Londoners are breathing in air which is roughly 50% less toxic than before lockdown measures were introduced. In Vancouver, Canada, Orcas have been spotted off the North Shore for the first time in decades. Following decades of environment-killing industrial expansion, perhaps the Covid pandemic could prove to be a turning point in the fight against the climate crisis.

Above: Tom Powter’s exclusive artwork for May 2020

A Long Way To Go

And yet, anyone looking beyond the feel-good headlines and viral posts will start to see a far gloomier picture. 

As people across the world retreated into their own four walls, the walls that separate nations appear to be growing in strength. It’s true that self-preservation is a powerful instinct in a crisis, and it is that desire to look after our own which has seen isolationist policies and ideas gain traction. Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Harvard University’s Stephen M. Walt argues that the pandemic will inspire a new wave of nationalism, leading to a world that is “less open” than before Covid was unleashed.

“The pandemic will strengthen the state and reinforce nationalism. Governments of all types will adopt emergency measures to manage the crisis, and many will be loath to relinquish these new powers when the crisis is over.”

– Stephen M. Walt writing in Foreign Policy magazine

For the fight against the climate crisis, that’s not a promising forecast. The upcoming environmental catastrophe is going to require countries to collaborate, not bicker over who is most or least responsible. 

Additionally, behind the warm and hopeful tone of viral headlines lies a deeply chilling truth. The International Energy Agency anticipates total gas emissions to be a full 8% lower in 2020 than they were the previous year, the biggest single fall since the end of the second world war. However, even that is simply nowhere near good enough. In order to hit the 2015 Paris agreement’s most ambitious target, that historic fall in emissions still leaves 90% of the required decarbonisation left to be done. 

Even the Covid pandemic, the greatest upheaval to globalised life for over half a century, is not doing nearly enough to make a meaningful difference to the climate crisis. Amidst the distracting dopamine thrill of individual pieces of good news, that is the sobering reality. 

The Night Is Darkest Before The Dawn

However, not only do genuine solutions exist – they may be easier to implement than we expect. 

What has become clear is that, when it comes to the climate crisis, the actions of individuals can only go so far (which is not far at all). What is needed is full-on systemic and economic change. A glass-half-full approach would be to say that economies are already on their knees due to the pandemic. Therefore, if there were ever a time to introduce policies that would hit many carbon-dependent advanced economies, it’s now. After all, post-pandemic, what do they have to lose?

One such policy is called carbon pricing. The idea, which would involve implementing a tax on carbon emissions, is popular amongst economists as it allows for market-regulated system change. It is sadly less popular amongst politicians, many of whom are loath to deliver bad news to what are invariably some of the most powerful companies in the world. The reality of carbon-pricing, however, is that the big-emission generators the policy would hit are perfectly capable of paying a levy on their carbon output. The benefit of the policy wouldn’t be in hurting these companies – it would be in incentivising them to invest in cleaner alternatives for their energy. 

Of course, incentives are nice but they won’t go far enough. Credit where it is due to countries such as France, which has recently announced companies looking to build roads which will compete with train lines are to be exempt from state support. What is desperately needed beyond this, however, is significant and sustained government investment in subsidies and green energy projects. The market has already been given decades to make the right decisions without state intervention, and it has failed to do so. If governments want to build a greener economy, they are going to need to lay the foundations themselves.

Revolution In The Air

The pandemic has shown us how quickly the world can turn. What we have always thought of as a stable status quo may very well be more vulnerable than we think. 

For revolutionaries who want to rewrite governments’ disastrous climate policies, that logic might appear invigorating. But it should also serve as stark evidence of how hard and fast global disasters can strike. Policymakers have a window of opportunity to ensure that Covid does not become a mere tremor before the climate earthquake. Billions of lives may depend on them taking advantage of it.

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