Carbon, Climate Change, and Coronavirus

A common refrain from netizens during the COVID-19 crisis has been that the environment is benefiting from the sudden lack of human activity. Not only are swans and dolphins coming back to the canals of Venice, but emissions of carbon dioxide have been falling in China at a meteoric pace. The dramatic reduction in vehicle use and commercial flights is set to create the largest annual fall in CO2 emissions, in the region of 2,000m tons. The pandemic, the argument goes, will improve sustainability efforts on a global scale.

Not quite. On the one hand, several of the viral social media posts about thriving wildlife were patently false. More broadly, the dramatic drop in air pollution is not sustainable, and the rebound may prove to be worse. A similar argument was made ahead of the financial crisis in 2008; from Human Rights Watch:

In the initial aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008, global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production decreased by 1.4 percent, only to rise by 5.9 percent in 2010. And the crisis this time could have a longer-term impact on the environment — at far greater cost of human health, security, and life — if it derails global effort to address climate change.

This should have been a “pivotal” year in global efforts to combat climate change. António Guterres, the UN’s Secretary-General, referred to his decision to postpone the annual UN climate change summit, scheduled for November in Glasgow. COP26 would have been the forum for 196 countries to introduce their plans to meet the emission reduction goals outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

As governments around the world scramble to salvage their economies, there will be more of an incentive to fill jobs in the fossil fuel industry. Canada and the U.S. have taken an aggressive lobbying approach, bailing out polluting industries – including fossil fuels, plastics, aviation, and vehicles. Analysis by the Department of Labor found that more than 106,000 workers in clean energy lost their jobs in March, absent Congressional assistance. And in China, more permits for coal-fired power plants were issued over two weeks than all of last year.

While this is an indispensable time to promote climate policy, governments seem to be doing the opposite by empowering industries that pose a threat to long-term ecological sustainability. The newly minted European Commission President, Ursula Von der Leyen, bluntly states that the joint management of both crises “will define how they go down in the history books.”

An Incremental Revolution

The EU has long strived to be the first climate-neutral continent. It first launched a roadmap to a sustainable economy with its European Green Deal, which aims to eliminate net carbon emissions by 2050 and decouple the bloc’s economic growth from resource use. While only 10% of global emissions originate from the EU, member states hope to create an ambitious, feasible framework for long-term decarbonization.

In line with these goals, last week a group of European lawmakers, activists, and companies called for the EU to adopt more green stimulus measures. These would, they argue, ensure a sustainable path to recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic is stamped out. But the Green Deal will only be successful in its goals if the bloc can achieve some core objectives:

  • Illustrate that economic prosperity and climate sustainability are not mutually exclusive
  • Lower the costs of the transition to renewable energy sources
  • Drive action through market forces

This last point is important. The EU’s carrot-and-stick approach is clear in the Green Deal, which puts forth a process for the bloc to only engage in comprehensive trade deals with countries that have signed onto (and implemented) the Paris agreement. These measures would also need global buy-in in order to be effective, according to Dimitris Valatsas, the Chief Economist at Greenmantle, an advisory firm; from Foreign Policy:

To be successful, the EU will need to use its economic size and influence in trade and policy if it is to drive climate action worldwide. To do so, it first needs to shed any illusions that climate action is going to be a cooperative process in which the world harmoniously decarbonizes. The failure of the Kyoto Protocol and the intended U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement amply demonstrate that decarbonization cannot rely on multilateralism alone. To succeed, the EU must embrace climate unilateralism.

After the pandemic subsides, this will become even more essential, albeit more complicated. There will be pressure from EU member states, like the coal-heavy Hungary or Poland, to water down or altogether drop the bloc’s proposed Green Deal. A few governments will pressure the Commission to reorder its policy priorities and put “non-essential” environmental programs, like biodiversity, in cold storage.

That would be a mistake. Not only is elevated climate variability more likely to spread infectious diseases, it also precipitates climate disasters that will hit society’s most vulnerable. Fazlun Khalid, an advisor to the UN and member of the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), argues that while the EU might be tempted to continue shoring up the fossil fuel industry, it should instead be pushing for “a concerted retraining and reskilling program to shift those jobs into the new renewable energy industries of the 21st century.”

With the IMF predicting that the world likely faces the worst recession since the Great Depression, it would not be surprising to see sustainable initiatives like the EU’s Green Deal retreat into obscurity. That does not need to be the case. Khalid’s comments make it clear that COVID-19 stimulus measures are not antithetical to sustainability policies, but instead part of a unified approach to reengineering our economies from the ground up.

The Drive To Decarbonize

It’s easy to ignore the inherent link between infectious diseases and the environment. But in tandem with the explosion in global economic growth over the past two centuries, our natural habitats have begun to fray; from the World Economic Forum (WEF):

Intact nature provides a buffer between humans and disease, and emerging diseases are often the results of encroachment into natural ecosystems and changes in human activity. In the Amazon, for example, deforestation increases the rates of malaria, since deforested land is the ideal habitat for mosquitoes. Deforested land has also been linked to outbreaks of Ebola and Lyme disease, as humans come into contact with previously untouched wildlife.

A study published this year found that deforestation in Uganda was increasing the emergence of animal-to-human diseases and stresses that human behavior is the underlying cause. Altering nature too much or in the wrong way, therefore, can have devastating human implications.

While the origin of the COVID-19 virus is yet to be established, 60% of infectious diseases originate from animals, and 70% of emerging infectious diseases originate from wildlife. AIDS, for example, came from chimpanzees, and SARS is thought to have been transmitted from an animal still unknown to this day. We have lost 60% of all wildlife in the last 50 years, while the number of infectious diseases has quadrupled in the last 60 years. It is no coincidence that the destruction of ecosystems has coincided with a sharp increase in such diseases.

The WEF argues that the increase in transmissions of infectious diseases is directly connected to the impact of human activity on our ecosystems. Outbreaks have become more severe and frequent as a result of global interconnectedness: wildlife marketing, migration, air travel, urbanization, and interstate conflict are all big contributing factors. Accelerating global investment in renewable energy would not only provide the reset global economies need; it would align climate goals with economic stimulus packages, thereby reducing the prospect of future pandemics.

The country suffering most from COVID-19 is also the one that could most effectively facilitate the long-term transition to renewable energy. In the United States, a whopping 850,000 people have contracted the virus, and the Fed projects unemployment to reach 32.1% — a figure that may come with caveats (failing to account for the recently passed stimulus bill, for instance), but which nonetheless provides an idea of the short-term effects of the pandemic.

While providing immediate relief, the stimulus package is not a catch-all measure to post-pandemic economic recovery via environmental policy – nor does it claim to be. Corporate lobbying efforts worldwide have gone up a notch in the oil and gas sector, in what the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) invokes as a series of direct and indirect measures, including

[…] bailouts, buyouts, regulatory rollbacks, exemption from measures designed to protect the health of workers and the public, non-enforcement of environmental laws, and criminalization of protest, among others.

One notable example of this came in March, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a blanket policy to suspend penalties for “noncompliance with routing monitoring and reporting obligations.” Most regulated entities who can demonstrate that COVID-19 affected operations could then avoid having to comply with water-, air-, or waste-related requirements. Oil and natural gas were clearly beneficiaries: factories, power plants, and other industrial power stations will monitor themselves for an indeterminate period of time during the outbreak, and eschew fines for infringing on legal requirements.

And yet, as David Roberts argues in Vox, oil and gas started facing structural problems long before the virus came along. Overproduction through fracking has led to excessive supply, low prices, and the bankruptcy of hundreds of drilling companies over the past few years. The industry has racked up enormous debt, with $40bn due in 2020 alone. And, in a recent report published by BNP Paribas, the threat posed by electric vehicles and renewable energy is concluded to put the economics of oil and gas “in relentless and irreversible decline.”

This became more clear when, on Monday, benchmark U.S. oil fell to negative prices for the first time in history.

Green stimulus measures need to account for these economic shifts with supply-side climate policy: choke off fossil fuels at their origin by halting new projects or shutting down existing infrastructure. While this may be regarded as politically counterproductive in a country like the U.S. (climate advisors and experts often focus on building renewable infrastructure or putting in place policy instruments like carbon taxes), it deserves more consideration in regional sustainability proposals like the EU’s Green Deal.

Rystad Energy, an independent energy research and business intelligence company, predicts that COVID-19 could generate losses of more than a million jobs in the oilfield service industry (OFS) in 2020. The impending bailouts might keep the sector limping along, but won’t resuscitate jobs being made economically impractical by broad industry trends. In this instance, the simplest solution — to keep oil below ground, and halt projects to build new mines and wells — may also be the most effective.

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