After COVID-19 - a new world order?

17th of July 2020
After COVID-19 - a new world order?

With humanity in the throes of one of the most serious pandemics in a generation, it may seem too great a stretch to talk about a silver lining to the crisis. For all that, COVID-19 is having unforeseen impacts that could set us on a path to a more sustainable world economic order should we choose to take it, writes Hartley Milner.

Global CO2 emissions plummeted as growing numbers of countries took refuge behind their borders in response to the deadly Coronavirus and pulled up the drawbridge.

The emission falls are in sharp contrast to 2019 when greenhouse gas levels reached an all-time high, with China once again overwhelmingly the biggest polluter. Now even China’s carbon output has nosedived, by as much as 40 per cent across its key industrial sectors.

Fantastic news for Mother Earth and all living things nurtured at her bountiful bosom. Except that these gains for the environment have come about not through concerted efforts to avert the looming climate catastrophe but as a consequence of measures to contain a relatively short-term public health emergency, so are likely to be temporary.

We have seen carbon reductions in the wake of global crises before, most recently during the 2003 SARS outbreak, following 9/11 and as a result of the last recession. The danger is that as in the past the gains will be rapidly reversed as the world resumes normal production and consumption once the pandemic is over. Pollution levels may even rise above what they were as industry makes up its losses, scientists warn.

However, behavioural changes triggered by the Coronavirus could provide the inspiration we need to create a more sustainable world at a time when climate action has never been more urgent, according to UK eco-economist Dr Daren Bartlett.

“It is encouraging that the negative impact on the environment and climate caused by excessive capitalist production is decreasing as a side-effect of the pandemic,” he told the ECJ. “There are valuable lessons we can and must learn from this experience that could move us to a world based on a fairer distribution of property and goods, with the aim of ensuring the livelihood of all inhabitants of our planet in a more stable, sustainable and healthier environment. Of course, all this will depend on whether we have the will to effect decisive long-term change, which we have seen little of to date.”

The UN is calling for a ramping up of international action to close the carbon emissions gap… the difference between what we say we will do and what we actually do to bring down CO2 levels. If we delay, it warns, the Earth’s fate would be sealed as climate warming reaches the point where it is irreversible. Rapid melting of the ice caps and degradation of coral reefs and rainforests indicate some tipping points may have already been “activated”.

“We need quick wins to reduce emissions as much as possible in 2020, then make stronger commitments under the Paris agreement to kick-start major transformations of economies and societies,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nation’s environment programme. “We need to catch up on the years in which we procrastinated.”

Restrictions lead to drop in demand

Quick wins from COVID-19 so far this year have come as a result of restrictions or bans impacting aviation, shipping and heavy industry such as steel production, which in turn have led to a drop in demand for coal and oil and cuts in energy generation. Critically endangered animal species have received a reprieve from a crackdown on the lucrative global wildlife trade, which provides animal products for use in traditional medicines and as exotic foods. The Coronavirus that started in China is thought likely to have come from bats on sale for consumption at Wuhan market. Now campaigners are calling for a permanent, internationally enforced ban on wildlife products.

Climate change event

In November, countries that signed up to the 2015 climate agreement are due to meet in Glasgow for the UN Cop26 summit when they will be asked to upgrade their pledges on tackling global warming, most importantly their emissions targets through to 2030. Since Paris, the UN has reset the safe level of warming from well below 2C to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels and will press signatories to get on track to reach net zero emissions as soon as possible. After the failure of Cop25 last December, the two-week conference is being billed as a ‘last-ditch’ opportunity to reach a consensus on long-term policies to save the planet.

But the summit could itself become a victim of the virus. Its postponement is becoming an increasing possibility. Preparations for the gathering are already being hampered by travel restrictions and world leaders are more focused on tackling the impacts of the Coronavirus back in their home countries. One option being mooted is for the conference to take place in ‘virtual space’, but the logistics of getting 30,000 delegates conversing with each other via a video call across 195 countries is likely to be immensely challenging technically.

“If the conference is delayed it would be like putting the planet in an oven and turning it up to full heat,” said Barlett. “It must go ahead. We need a definitive strategy to reduce climate warming now, not next year, not 18 months later or whenever the Coronavirus outbreak is contained…by then any actions we take could come too late to make a significant difference. Any side benefits for the environment from fighting the virus will be forgotten and we will slip back into passivity.

“Even now as we are tottering on the edge of the abyss more than a few of the most influential world leaders are still in denial or reluctant to face up to the implications of climate change on humankind and the natural world. We saw this only a few months ago when bushfires raged across Australia, one of the world’s biggest coal exporters and per capita emitters of greenhouse gases.

This as the embers were still smouldering from fires started deliberately in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest to clear land for pastoral farming and to provide access for logging and mineral extraction. And then political leaders in both these countries seemed taken aback by the extent of the public backlash to palls of thick polluting smoke pervading major cities, leaving aside the many tragic casualties that resulted from the fires.

“No, it is the frustration of ordinary citizens that has been driving the climate agenda to date. People are acting unilaterally in areas such as switching to electric vehicles, cutting back on travel, their plastics use, meat consumption, household energy use and making greener decisions on goods and services purchases, even limiting their family size. Businesses have been taking matters into their own hands as well, implementing similar measures where appropriate while increasingly turning to renewable energy and carbon offset schemes.”

Political leadership crucial

But Bartlett was clear that progress towards a more sustainable future ultimately requires collaborative political leadership. He said: “Philosophically, we are talking about the green economy. The UN defines a green economy as one that results in improved human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. In its simplest expression, a green economy can be thought of as one that is low carbon, resource-efficient and socially inclusive.

“What distinguishes the green economy from prevailing economic regimes is the value we place on ‘natural capital’ – natural resources and living organisms – and ‘ecological services’, ie, ecosystems that support our survival and quality of life, such as natural pollination of crops, drinking water, the air we breathe and medicines. The green economy requires that all actual or potential activities relating to the natural world are made subject to an ‘environmental full cost accounting’ regime, which scientifically assesses their economic, health, social and environmental costs.

“Armed with this information, policymakers are able to make better informed decisions when taking actions in one part of the world that may have influences on people elsewhere. A green economy with more sustainable enterprises can provide many times more jobs than those that will be lost from fossil fuel-dependent industries, and help poverty reduction by putting people to work in, for example, forest regeneration projects. It is a system that provides prosperity for all within the ecological limits of the planet.”

Bartlett added: “The green economy is a universal and transformative change to the global status quo that will require fundamental shifts in government priorities. Several countries are demonstrating leadership by adopting national green growth or low-carbon economic strategies, but it will require the commitment of all countries working together, and time is running out.

“How we are dealing with the Coronavirus shows we can bring about change. The increase in extreme weather events that are decimating the world’s ecosystems shows what will happen should we fail to take global warming seriously. If we leave it for much longer, nature will step up her interventions and purge the planet herself. And the cost to all life will be cataclysmic. The future is in our hands.”


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