A Tale of Two Crises
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Coronavirus and Climate Change
Coronavirus has cut emissions faster than years of climate negotiations. Does the outbreak reveal what life might be like if we were to act seriously on climate change? Or what it might be like if we don't?
Coronavirus has cut emissions faster than years of climate negotiations. Does the outbreak reveal what life might be like if we were to act seriously on climate change? Or what it might be like if we don't?
China, the world's biggest greenhouse gas polluter, has no plans to cut its emissions anytime soon. Under its Paris Agreement pledges, Beijing has promised to hit peak emissions by 2030. So for the next decade, they're only going to go up.
Yet suddenly, this colossal, coal-powered economy has slashed emissions by 25%, according to numbers crunched by Lauri Myllyvirta at the University of Helsinki's Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. Not because of the climate crisis, but the COVID-19 public health emergency.
"For something like this to happen virtually overnight is very much unprecedented," Myllyvirta told DW.
Wuhan, the 11 million-strong Hubei province city at the center of the coronavirus outbreak has been on lockdown since late January. With businesses and factories in the province shuttered, and hundreds of millions of people across the country rendered immobile by sweeping travel restrictions, the atmosphere above China in NASA satellite images appears virtually clean of nitrous oxide emissions.
NASA data shows a dramatic fall in nitrous oxide, a pollutant emitted from fossil fuels, after China put the breaks on its economy to contain coronavirus
Around the world, the aviation industry is predicting significant losses, British airline Flybe has collapsed, sporting events and international conferences have been cancelled, schools closed. Economists are warning of possible recession in Chinese trading partners Germany and Japan, while global growth is predicted to slow and oil demand has fallen faster than at any time since the 2008 financial crash.
All this looks like good news for the planet — at least in the short term. "Suppose you were a policymaker, and you were thinking about what you would do to lower emissions — you just got a pretty good instruction," says Amy Jaffe, director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Energy Security and Climate Change program.
Learning to localize
Jaffe says the virus is prompting us to change our habits in ways that could make a longer-term contribution to climate protection — working from home, video conferencing, working shorter weeks or staggering office hours to reduce traffic.
The streets of normally bustling Beijing were deserted in early February when the Chinese government extended the new year holiday to tackle the CORVID-19
Towns and villages in Italy have emptied as the virus has spread
Companies might also conclude that what's good for the planet — localized production — is a sensible way to protect their supply chains from all kinds of risk, such as extreme weather events linked to climate change.
"They really need to go and think about all these events that could actually disrupt their supply chain and think about what they're going to do to make it more resilient," Jaffe told DW.
Still, the biggest share of emissions saved in China over recent weeks comes from the slowdown in manufacturing, and that's something few politicians would advocate as official policy beyond an immediate crisis.
In China, Myllyvirta says the pressure to resume business as usual is so great there have been reports of local governments ordering workerless factories to run their machines just to use up power, with the expectation that their superiors will be looking at electricity consumption as a sign of recovery.
After the 2008 financial crash, "which also led to a dramatic drop-off in China's emissions and marked improvement in air quality because export industries went into freefall," Myllyvirta says the government launched a massive, construction-heavy stimulus program that saw emissions surge.
Such stories don't bode well for the climate in a post-crisis scenario when the country is keen to get the economy back up and running.
Chinese factories may be expected to make up for lost time as the Chinese economy gets going again
Myllyvirta says state investment in "smokestack industries" geared to maintaining the country's growth target could see rebound emissions more than cancel out savings over the last few weeks. He hopes China might instead opt for a path of slower, "high quality" growth, based on services, household consumption and investment in green technology and renewables.
Others argue that boosting consumption always comes at a cost to the planet, and the global obsession with expanding GDP makes little more sense than running empty production plants just to get the numbers up.
A managed contraction
"The only time we see emissions significantly reduce is when countries — or the globe — goes into recession," says Jon Erickson, an ecological economist at the University of Vermont's Gund Institute who studies emerging infectious disease vectors in relation to climate change.
"These moments really point to how intimately greenhouse gas emissions are tied to economic growth," Erickson told DW.
While recessions are good for the climate, they're terrible for people — particularly those who already benefit least from our fossil-fuel economies. Among the hardest hit by China's coronavirus response are low-waged migrant workers already living precarious lives.
The economic impact of coronavirus has rippled out well beyond China's borders. Business is slow in Bangkok's Chinatown, which would normally be flooded with tourists
Global supply chains have been disrupted by the virus
Yet advocates of a managed contraction of economic activity to protect the climate say shocks like the current outbreak illustrate the stark choices before us.
"We never want to do things in crisis mode," Erickson says. Instead, we have a "five to 10 year window" to "completely transform the economy so that the worst side of the contraction can be reduced, so that we can protect those who are most vulnerable."
If that sounds ridiculously optimistic, recent weeks at least suggest that when a crisis is deemed urgent enough, the world can act big and fast.
"If we truly treat climate as an emergency, as we are treating this pandemic as an emergency, we have to have a similar level of international coordination," Erickson says, starting with rapid scaling-back of fossil fuel investments.
A taste of future crises
Transmitting person-to-person and sending economic tremors across six continents, coronavirus has highlighted how closely interconnected our global community is. The ripple effect through supply chains also reveals our collective responsibility for emissions, as China's factories supply businesses and consumers in the West.
Neglecting that responsibility could mean crashes and crises far more painful than anything we've seen yet.
Japan is among the countries that could be hard hit by the economic fallout from coronavirus
With a global death toll of over 3,000, COVID-19 still appears far less deadly than fossil fuels, which, according to a recent study that Myllyvirta co-authored for Greenpeace, are responsible for 4.5 million air pollution-related deaths each year, aside from climate impacts. But scientists warn that warmer, wetter conditions are increasing the probability of such outbreaks. No one knows how deadly the next one might be.
"This is an opportunity to talk about planned economic stabilization, and talk about planned degrowth," Erickson says. "The economy will contract, it will hit limits, it will crash, it will collapse on its own. That's going to hurt the most."
By Climate-KIC Italy -
The Covid-19 situation in Italy (with more than 15,000 infected; death toll is +1,000) has forced a change in Italy which if it sticks could have fundamentally positive impacts.
The picture of Italy during this “darkest hour” is black and white with 50 shades of grey. The only things written in stone are the emergency decrees that the Italian Government issued that list containment measures that everyone must observe. Schools, universities are closed. Students are receiving their lessons online and this is adding to the diversity and richness of their experiences, with parents and family members getting involved, and greater amounts of autonomous working. Schools in Italy are seeing the opportunity of mass education experiences, linking more with other schools around the world becoming more of a possibility. Italy might shift from a method of teaching in schools that relies on purchasing hard copies of heavy textbooks to the much lighter, cheaper and climate-friendly soft copy.
Only commodities shops and pharmacies are open. Manufacturing industries can continue production but have to observe strict safety measures. Approximately 5 million workers are now working from home - keeping cars off the road and giving working mothers and fathers an extra 2-3 hours a day to be more productive or to be with their families. Commuting is dramatically reduced and the air is cleaner according to the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research. The world of entertainment and culture has invaded social networks: musicians, performers, TV presenters, influencers and museums are virtually opened their doors to the hugest public of ever.
It is a massive explosion of online communication.
The Italian Prime Minister’s transparent approach is a hard-line one designed to contain the Covid-19 virus. People must stay home and public gathering is strictly forbidden. All Italians are obliged to follow the rules or sanctions are foreseen. To avoid fake news, panic, and uncontrolled fear the Italian Government has decided to be the only reliable source of information. Perhaps a renovated national feeling will result at the end of all this. Despite the efforts, people have had a tendency to continue to want to meet face to face but bulletin after bulletin people are following the rules: the hashtag #iorestoacasa (stay home) appears like a trust sticker for all.
So what about EIT Climate-KIC in Italy? The Italian team is treating this as a big strategic experiment to test new ways of working. It is a fact that EIT Climate-KIC owns tools and technologies to work smart, manage online meetings, collaborate throughout digital channels. "We have learned for online meetings to work well they need to be designed in a different way. It is not just switching the video on and starting to work, a different level of planning is required as the Edge Riders Distributed Collaboration Manual suggests (supported by EIT Climate-KIC).
Our Learning Platform, which operates 7/24 and is free is seeing a huge uptake in usage." the Italian team says.
As a learning organisation EIT Climate-KIC will take up this opportunity to re-think business as usual. It’s a chance they have to deepen their way of dealing with remote meetings and improve their capacity to work together and support the community while drastically reducing carbon emissions. After this crisis the team won’t be the same it will definitely be better.
So let’s imagine that Italy has to face another extreme challenge like climate change while struggling with the coronavirus. People are probably learning that they are not fully equipped to fight coronavirus pandemic… or climate change. But even if Covid-19 and climate have to behave differently, they both require huge economic trade-offs, behaviour change, courageous deeds such as to put social justice at the core and to take care of the vulnerable, what we call systemic transformation, systemic because so many parts need to shift not just few.
The Italian government made its decision on where to allocate public resources (coronavirus is on the top of the list). Would climate change, circular economy, and innovation be a distant dream? Or could the public sector, that now is aggressively fighting the virus, rethink its role “to further ensure a growth more innovation-led, inclusive and sustainable” as Prof. Mariana Mazzucato claims? (Mazzucato is the newly appointed advisor on Economics to Italian Prime Minister). In other words, will there be an opportunity to switch on to Green New Deal measures? Could we really see the light at the end of the tunnel towards a real zero carbon transition while addressing our “darkest hour”?
A complete rethinking to make climate change a ‘mission’.
Is there a lesson to learn? EIT Climate-KIC is collaborating with several of the EU Mission boards to create cities, economies, landscapes of the future which was inspired by prof. Mazzucato and her concept of big-picture, high-ambition innovation “missions” to address the enormous transformation challenges we face. EIT Climate-KIC is working with her paradigm shift in economics (“changing the direction of growth”) as it has chosen to position itself as an orchestrated innovation ecosystem that connects ‘demand’ and ‘supply’ in catalysing transformational systemic change, one that brings together public and private actors – businesses and states, individuals and cities.
“For practitioners like us, deeply engaged in climate and environmental issues, we have been trying for years to shift behaviour and now this comes along, it’s a massive opportunity for us to change the norm, not temporarily but hopefully forever” says the Italian team. "In our strategy ‘Transformation, in time’ EIT Climate-KIC states that continuing to work through gradual, incremental changes will not be enough. What is needed now is a fundamental transformation of economic, social and financial systems that will trigger an exponential change in decarbonisation rates and strengthen climate resilience.
EIT Climate-KIC wants to collect a portfolio of experiments on the ‘leading edge’ of exploration, focused on triggering new ways of thinking, leveraging exponential effects of new technologies, networks, and community forces, and seeking to learn faster than the pace of change. This can mean accelerating change through building new skills and mindsets, facilitating the adoption of new technologies and business models and building adaptive capabilities in individuals, communities, businesses, and cities.
Could Covid-19 be one of the triggers we are searching for?
EIT Climate-KIC - The EU’s largest public private partnership addressing climate change through innovation to build a zero carbon economy.
EIT Climate-KIC is keeping its community as safe as possible, contributing to slow down the spread of the virus. But it is continuing its crucial activities and initiatives to fight climate change.
We have the chance to innovate our sustainable future while fighting coronavirus. So never waste a good crisis. Let’s solve it and go green.
UN Chief Warns World 'Way Off Track' on Tackling Climate Crisis as New Report Underscores Need for Bold Global Action
"Let us have no illusions: the climate crisis is already causing calamity and more is to come," said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. "This is a battle we can—and must—win."
By Jessica Corbett - 11. March 2020
A fire rages in Bobin, Australia on Nov. 9, 2019, as firefighters try to contain dozens of out-of-control blazes across the state of New South Wales. (Photo: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres issued a stark warning about the necessity of ambitious global climate action Tuesday with the release of an annual report detailing the latest science on rising greenhouse gas emissions that drive up air and ocean temperatures, leading to devastating sea level rise and more severe extreme weather.
"Time is fast running out for us to avert the worst impacts of climate disruption and protect our societies from the inevitable impacts to come," Guterres wrote in a statement included in the new World Meteorological Organization (WMO) report, which concluded that 2019 was 1.1°C warmer than the pre-industrial era and concluded the hottest decade on record.
"We are currently way off track to meeting either the 1.5°C or 2°C targets that the Paris Agreement calls for. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2050," Guterres continued in the WMO report. "And for that, we need political will and urgent action to set a different path."
Let us have no illusions: the climate crisis is already causing calamity & more is to come.
I call on all countries to show more #ClimateAction ambition - and on individuals to hold your governments to account.
This is a battle we can - and must - win. pic.twitter.com/zYtRPyZnbC
— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) March 11, 2020
Guterres reiterated his warnings and demands for bold action during a Tuesday event to unveil the WMO Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2019 (pdf) at U.N. headquarters in New York City.
"The indications are crystal clear. Global heating is accelerating," Guterres said. "We count the cost in human lives and livelihoods as droughts, wildfires, floods, and extreme storms take their deadly toll. We have no time to lose if we are to avert climate catastrophe. This is a pivotal year for how we address the climate emergency. We have to aim high at the next climate conference in Glasgow in November."
The indications are crystal clear. Global heating is accelerating.
— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) March 10, 2020
- "National climate plans—the Nationally Determined Contributions, as they are called—must show more ambition."
- "All nations need to adopt strategies to reach net zero emissions by 2050."
- "A robust package of program, projects, and initiatives that will help communities and nations adapt to climate disruption and build resilience."
- "Developed countries must deliver on their commitment to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020."
WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas, who joined Guterres at the unveiling event, told U.N. News in an interview that there is increasing public awareness—from young people to the financial sector—of the unparalleled threat posed by the climate crisis, "so there are plenty of good signs that we have started moving in the right direction."
"Last year emissions dropped in developed countries, despite the growing economy, so we have been [able] to show that you can detach economic growth from emission growth," Taalas said. "The bad news is that, in the rest of the world, emissions grew last year. So, if we want to solve this problem we have to have all the countries on board."
— WMO | OMM (@WMO) March 10, 2020
The WMO leader highlighted that countries are still failing to meet their commitments under the Paris climate accord, which puts the world on track to endure a global temperature rise of up to five degrees by 2100, so "there's clearly a need for higher ambition levels if we're serious about climate mitigation."
Final report on #StateofClimate in 2019 highlights #climatechange signs like increasing land and ocean heat, sea level rise, melting ice. And impacts on development, health, migration and displacement, food security and land and marine ecosystems. pic.twitter.com/y6zdv6Khl2
— WMO | OMM (@WMO) March 10, 2020
The key takeaways from the WMO's new #StateofClimate report are:
- The global mean temperature for 2019 was 1.1±0.1°C above pre-industrial levels.
- Global atmospheric mole fractions of greenhouse gases reached record levels in 2018.
- The year 2019 saw low sea-ice extent in both the Arctic and the Antarctic.
- The ocean absorbs around 90% of the heat that is trapped in the Earth system by rising concentrations of greenhouse gases.
- Over the decade 2009–2018, the ocean absorbed around 23% of the annual CO2 emissions, lessening the increase in atmospheric concentrations.
- As the ocean warms it expands and sea levels rise.
"This annual litany of climate change impacts and inadequate global responses makes for a gut-wrenching read," Dave Reay, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian Tuesday.
— WMO | OMM (@WMO) March 10, 2020
Imperial College London professor Brian Hoskins emphasized to the Guardian the importance of the international community continuing to address the climate crisis.
"The report is a catalogue of weather in 2019 made more extreme by climate change, and the human misery that went with it," he said. "It points to a threat that is greater to our species than any known virus—we must not be diverted from the urgency of tackling it by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to zero as soon as possible."
Hoskins' comments come as experts express concerns that although the coronavirus outbreak will likely reduce planet-heating emissions from China and other countries with high infection rates, the ongoing pandemic "could complicate the challenges of climate change—which presents serious, if longer-term, threats of its own—at a point when it was crucial to make rapid strides," as MIT Technology Review reported Tuesday.
"Emissions in China are down because the economy has stopped and people are dying, and because poor people are not able to get medicine and food," Gernot Wagner, a clinical associate professor at New York University's Department of Environmental Studies, told MIT Technology Review. "This is not an analogy for how we want to decrease emissions from climate change."
Politics and Consequences: From Climate Emergency to Coronavirus
After a forty-year waged on both science and government, the dangers that face us now are no surprise at all.
By David Orr - 11. March 2020
We are at the threshold of irreversible and irrevocable global changes that will jeopardize civilization," writes Orr. "No one in previous generations could say that with the authenticity and urgency with which we assuredly can." Key questions remain. How will we respond? And will it be in time? (Image: Ms Tech/Getty)
As the coronavirus sweeps across the country, we have good reasons to ask why we were so unprepared. Why warnings went unheeded, scientists ignored, and budgets cut at the Centers for Disease Control. We should ask the same questions about the climate crisis. In both cases the causes are political, the result of a forty-year war waged against government and science. That war explains a great deal about why we had no plan to deal with COVID-19 and why we have no plan to deal with the growing climate emergency. Collective foresight and preventive action requires both an alert, transparent, and effective government and an engaged and accurately informed citizenry.
Whoever wins the 2020 election, we the people must begin now to repair and strengthen democratic institutions. The timing, however, could hardly be worse. It will occur as the COVID-19 pandemic still rages and the effects of climate change become more severe. These are only the most urgent challenges ahead but there are others. We face not just a single crisis, but a convergence of crises and not just an emergency but “a long emergency” that will persist through this century and beyond.
"The coronavirus pandemic and the climate emergency combine to make this a teachable moment—a good time to ask larger question and challenge outworn assumptions."
As the situation becomes clearer, demands for action could take either of two forms: one authoritarian and, frankly, fascist, the other for a stronger and improved democracy. The first promises quick, simple, fake solutions to complex problems and appeal to our worst tribal instincts, mostly by scapegoating vulnerable minorities. On the other hand, building a stronger democracy would allow us to address the roots of our problems that go back to deceit, secrecy, corruption, demagoguery, voter suppression, gerrymandering, inequality, and invertebrate leadership.
The democracy we need, in other words, is not a slightly improved version of the status quo, but one that is more just, inclusive, stronger, competent, transparent, and accountable. It also requires us to understand our history.
The authors of the U.S. Constitution laid the foundation for a limited democracy. That system has been reinvented twice since, once to end slavery and again in the 1930s to avoid economic collapse. Neither was entirely successful. Jim Crow laws undid most of the gains of emancipation and the hijacking of the 14th Amendment by corporate lawyers did the rest. In the second instance, the patchwork reforms of the New Deal, worked well enough for a time, but inequality is now about what it was in 1929 and the system is otherwise failing in potentially catastrophic ways.
The differences from the reconstruction era to the present are striking. We are at the threshold of irreversible and irrevocable global changes that will jeopardize civilization. No one in previous generations could say that with the authenticity and urgency with which we assuredly can. No change in consumer behavior or market response alone will be effective unless they occur as a part of changes in the larger structures of governance, politics, economics, and values. This is a systemic crisis and must be met with systems-level changes not haphazard, piecemeal reforms conjured by anti-government ideologues.
"The democracy we need, in other words, is not a slightly improved version of the status quo, but one that is more just, inclusive, stronger, competent, transparent, and accountable."
The upshot is that we must create a coordinated set of policies to counter the forty-year assault on governance and the underlying institutions of democracy. The goals include:
- reforming our democracy by protecting the right to vote in fairly drawn electoral districts, and curtailing dark money in our politics;
- educating and empowering a public committed to defend the rules of accountability, transparency, and fair play that allow democracy to exist;
- building the capacity of government to protect public health and the global commons of air, oceans, biological diversity, forests, soils, and waters;
- creating a fair economy in which “prices tell the truth” about the full ecological and social costs of what we buy; and
- ensuring justice for all, including future generations.
The coronavirus pandemic and the climate emergency combine to make this a teachable moment—a good time to ask larger question and challenge outworn assumptions.
For example: If the founders knew in 1787 what we know now about how the earth works as a physical and biological system, how would they have written a Constitution for a complex world of leads and lags, positive and negative feedbacks, and long delays between action and consequence—all governed by biology, ecology, and thermodynamics not by simple Newtonian mechanics?
Calibrating our political system with how the Earth works as a physical system will be difficult, but much easier than contending with the consequences of a dysfunctional democracy on a planet with a biosphere and lots of viruses.
David W. Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College. He is the author of numerous books, including "Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse" (Oxford, 2009). And is co-editor of "Democracy Unchained" (The New Press, 2020).