Just a few short months ago, before the Coronavirus crisis had caused massive damage to the global economy, 2020 was going to be the big green year – the time when all the planning and investment since the 2015 Paris Agreement would finally put the world on track to stop global temperatures rising more than 2C.
Submerged by the terrifying deluge of Covid-19 disaster stories, green media coverage of focused, intentional efforts to lower carbon emissions has all but disappeared.
This is because the once-lively public discussion anticipating November’s planned climate summit in Glasgow, COP26 - where the first “global stock take” of progress made on halting climate change was to have happened, has fallen silent. The summit itself has been and the conference centre where it was to have taken place is being converted to an emergency hospital for Coronavirus victims.
In another blow to hopes that a low-carbon future was in reach, oil prices have plummeted. The substantial, if fragile, momentum away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy that had given so much hope in the past year, is again in doubt, with fossil fuels now so cheap that the benefits of switching to greener alternatives are less clear-cut.
Will the green agenda be sidelined by the longer-term Coronavirus recovery? If so, will we be left open to a climate catastrophe deeper than today’s health crisis – but, unlike Coronavirus, not reversible?
Some lessons from this crisis may feed into real future climate improvements. The argument for international cooperation has come back into focus as governments struggle with a virus that knows no borders. Working from home looks likely to gain ground, potentially easing problems associated with the relentless growth of traffic and congestion. And the experience of breathing cleaner air could trigger longer-term local efforts at environmental clean-ups.
But EBRD Director for Energy EMEA, Harry Boyd-Carpenter, points out that air quality will deteriorate again as soon as the economy picks up unless policymakers keep climate ambitions on track through: “We’re all seeing a short-term environmental benefit. But there is a real threat to the green transition and money and political capital that was being spent on a longer-term green transition will, in the short term, rightly be redirected to the immediate human and health crisis. Climate change is fundamentally as serious, if not more, than the Covid-19 crisis, but does feel, even if that perception is wrong, far less immediate.”
"If Coronavirus recovery packages do not support a green transition, within a 10-year timeframe, we will have missed the opportunity to remain within acceptable bounds of climate related risk” EBRD climate change MD Josué Tanaka
The risk is that countries and companies faced with vast costs for reconstruction will find it cheaper and easier to go on relying on fossil fuels than to invest in alternatives. Yet, to keep temperature rises to less than 2C and if possible, a more ambitious 1.5C, the world must be carbon neutral by 2050 – and, to achieve that, radical greening policies must be put in place in the next 10 years.
EBRD climate change MD Josué Tanaka, suggests the limited timeframe represents an opportunity to solve two problems at once, by crafting a post-Coronavirus economic recovery strategy that stimulates the economy through investment in climate. “This is where the opportunities will lie. If Coronavirus recovery packages do not support a green transition, within this 10-year timeframe, we will have missed the opportunity to remain within acceptable bounds of climate related risk.”
Leading climate expert Nicholas Stern, a former EBRD chief economist, sees a chance to leave behind a flawed “old normal” and build “a better world; strong, sustainable, inclusive and resilient”. He told a recent EBRD discussion, “We’ve learned about the enormous fragility of a society that neglects the natural economy, and creates conditions where this kind of virus can come into existence. What we could do to ourselves with climate change is much bigger and more long-lasting. There’s no vaccine for the effects of climate change.”
However, in international organisations and multilateral development banks, a green-focused future response to the Coronavirus collapse is already being sketched. These institutions, which have both the financial resilience to take a long view and in the EBRD’s case a long-term political mandate to stay focused on climate change, are reminding overwhelmed national leaders of the need to bring climate action back to centre stage. A positive sign was European leaders confirming, in March, that the bloc is still committed to its ambitious environmental clean-up, the EU Green Deal.
EBRD Chief Economist Beata Javorcik believes there are historical precedents for planning a post-Covid-19 recovery strategy well in advance of the actual start of recovery: “If you go back to 1944 there was the Bretton Woods conference whose purpose was to think about the world order after the Second World War ended. Now is the time to think about when we enter the recovery phase and how we can cooperate internationally - and the green agenda should be part of that.”
“In December many people just dismissed the first reports of Coronavirus from Wuhan because it was happening far away, a Chinese problem that did not concern us. But, before we knew it, it became our problem. This is the analogy with climate change. Many people don’t see it happening but that doesn’t mean it’s not" EBRD Chief Economist Beata Javorcik
As the European crisis broke in March, the EBRD launched an initial €1 billion Solidarity Package of emergency support to help keep companies and countries afloat. A second, bigger, package, with a stronger green element, will follow shortly. The principles behind future funding were set out in an April EBRD economists’ report arguing for “tilting to green” recovery spending and making it a key accelerator towards a low-carbon economy.
Experience during and after the 2008-9 financial crisis suggests that global greenhouse gas emissions initially dropped as normal economic activity stalled. But they rebounded in 2010 and have been rising steadily since, partly because the chance was missed to use the vast amounts of public money to set the world on a green path.
Failing this time would be a lost opportunity, says Javorcik. “In December many people just dismissed the first reports of Coronavirus from Wuhan because it was happening far away, a Chinese problem that did not concern us. But, before we knew it, it became our problem. This is the analogy with climate change. Many people don’t see it happening but that doesn’t mean it’s not. We should already be talking about the fact that we need to prevent the future shocks that may come with climate change.”
This article was first published, in longer form, by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Read the full-length article here