COVID-19: Will we Squander an Opportunity to Act on Climate?

Updated: Jan 20

Victor Luca, 18-Aug-20.

For decades now science has been warning us of an impending pandemic, as bad, if not worse than that of 1918. The warnings have largely been ignored. When the predicted pandemic arrived at the end of 2019, most countries found themselves poorly prepared. So far, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a tremendous toll on human lives with at least 1.2 million deaths. This is despite the fact that countermeasures have been applied in many countries to slow down infection rates. So far this pandemic is far from over. Aside from the toll in terms of human lives this pandemic has also caused untold economic havoc.

As at mid-October it is estimated that governments around the world have provided economic recovery packages worth an astonishing 12 trillion USD. Much of this economic stimulus involves the creation of new money from thin air by central banks and it has gone to support small and large businesses and worker salaries. In some countries this support has been very unevenly spread.

But COVID-19 could be only a harbinger of things to come since a pandemic is only one of many potential global existential threats that we have been warned about and that I have written about in this paper (‘The Fragility of Human Existence’, 4-Jun-20). This and other articles can be found on my website. The global existential threat that worries me the most is climate change. Once again, science has been warning about the perils of climate change for more than a century. For instance refer to this article: Joiin Tyndall, Esq., F.R.S., On the Absorption and Radiation of Heat by Gases and Vapours, and on the Physical Connexion of Radiation, Absorption, and Conduction. Phil. Trans. Royal Soc. London, 1861, 151, 1-36.

However, to most folk, climate change is not the immediate threat that COVID-19 has become. Although the immediacy of the pandemic is undeniable, time is fast running out to mount a serious, concerted and comprehensive response to climate change. I have often made reference to the need for a Manhattan project, which was the scientific and technological effort mounted in the United States at the tail end of World War II to develop the atom bomb.

Since the post industrial age Earth’s mean global surface temperature has increased by about one degree Celsius (see figure). Such a temperature increase may not seem like a lot but it really is quite significant. To make my point, consider human body temperature. Most readers know that the core body temperature of a human is 37.0 ± 0.1 oC. Many will also be aware that when body temperature increases by only one degree, you already start to feel it. By the time your body temperature increases another degree to 39 oC you may already be lying flat on your back feeling very crook. So a small temperature difference may seem like not much but you sure do feel it.

Although it has taken about 150 years for humans to cause the global mean surface temperature to rise by one degree Celsius, future warming need not be nearly as linear. Exponential global population and economic growth (growth in consumption) can result in abrupt increases in temperature that causes other processes to kick in that reinforce warming; so-called feedback loops. Scientists have referred to such events as tipping points. One tipping point is the melting of arctic sea ice but there are many other such tipping points that could potentially spell real a cataclysmic disaster that would make COVID-19 look like a walk in the park. Other tipping points include melting of Arctic, Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, Boreal forests, Amazon deforestation and permafrost thaw.

In an attempt to avert a climate disaster, on 4-Nov-2016, 189 nations signed up to The Paris Accord. This was the most recent of several attempts to extract a global commitment to take action to maintain warming well below 2 oC above pre-industrial levels. Of the signatory countries only 55 have so far ratified the accord. One country that has signaled its intention to withdraw from the agreement is the United States of America, historically the largest single green-house gas emitter. Official US withdrawal from the Paris accord happened on 4-Nov-20. Hopefully, at the time of this writing, the Democrats are returned to power with control of both houses and bring the US back into the fold, for all our sakes.

Given the rapidly deteriorating climate situation, it should not be all that surprising that the United Nations (UN) secretary-general, heads of state, companies, investors, and central banks, have called for post–COVID-19 economic recovery efforts to be used to catalyze the necessary longer-term transformation toward a more sustainable and resilient (green) society.

In New Zealand our reserve bank recently announced the creation of 100 billion NZD of new money via the so-called process of quantitative easing, or in other words, the printing of money. At present, most of this new money is going into housing, land banking and other measures to pump-prime economic growth.

It is pertinent to ask therefore if there are not better and greener ways of spending that new money? Are we going to take the opportunity to invest in a green energy future involving environmental restoration, development of new green technologies in agriculture, materials science, renewable energy, engineering and so forth? Or is that new money going to wind up in mortgages where it traditionally goes so that the housing market can be further inflated. This will further the condemnation of an entire chunk of the citizenry? In other words, a short term gain for a few will be a tremendous loss for future generations.

Reduced economic activity caused by COVID-19 has so far barely put a dint in the reduction of warming. It has been estimated that the effect of the pandemic has resulted in a cooling of around 0.01 ± 0.005 oC by 2030. In other words, the stimulus of 12 trillion in just six months of 2020 has resulted in little or no climate benefit as a result of reduced industrial and other activities and the resulting emissions.

The OECD estimates that 6.9 trillion USD a year is required up to 2030 to meet climate and development objectives. Since current energy, transport, building and water infrastructure make up more than 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions an unprecedented transformation of existing infrastructure systems is needed to achieve the world’s climate and development objectives.

It is clear that by the end of COVID-19 the recovery, funds expended are going to dwarf clean energy investment needs. The adage “a stitch in time saves nine” has never been more appropriate.

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