Earth Day: Coronavirus crisis offers big green opportunity

Economic disruptions caused by COVID-19 lockdowns present a unique environmental moment for action on climate change.

Los Angeles Environment COVID-19
Roads leading into downtown Los Angeles are emptier than usual during morning rush hour as the spread of the coronavirus disease continues [File: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters]

Coronavirus-induced constraints on public and private budgets threaten the Paris Climate Agreement and its environmental goals embraced by a majority of countries on Earth Day four years ago.

The economic dislocations caused by lockdowns imposed to contain the pandemic have drastically – and temporarily – reduced the world’s carbon emissions, particularly from cars, planes and manufacturing.

Yet the challenge of reversing global warming looms large as ever, say climate experts who want governments and companies to use today’s large-scale social disruption as an opportunity to enact stimulus measures consistent with the Paris accord’s long-term targets.

A report released this week by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) calls for economic recovery packages to align with climate objectives and “accelerate the shift to sustainable, decarbonised economies and resilient, inclusive societies”.

The publication, which was planned well before COVID-19 took its deadly hold, acknowledges that “renewable energy technologies may be affected by pandemics just like other investments”.

However, it states that the ongoing volatility of oil and gas markets not only makes the business case stronger for renewables but also suggests that fossil-fuel subsidies can now be reduced or redirected without increasing economic pain.

Hundreds of thousands of clean energy jobs have already been shed in what many economists believe is a global recession. Despite this contraction, IRENA insists the world should remain on the path to sustainability paved by $130 trillion invested in alternative energy by mid-century, while avoiding bailouts of unsustainable sectors.

Los Angeles Environment COVID-19
A man is tested for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a Los Angeles fire department testing station for the homeless on Skid Row, Los Angeles, California, where the virus is highlighting stark inequality [File: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters]

‘Crisis to crisis’

Ellie Johnston, climate and energy lead at Climate Interactive, says that the stark inequality and racial disparities highlighted by the coronavirus exacerbate the mounting toll from the crisis of climate change.

“We don’t want to be setting ourselves up to go from crisis to crisis to crisis for humanity,” she told Al Jazeera. “This is a big opportunity to create demand for workers,” Johnston added about the “suite of policies and finance options” that could be activated in response to COVID-19.

Climate Interactive, a nonprofit based in the United States which runs an online dashboard and simulation tool teaching people about the levers for pulling back climate change, cites New Zealand, Germany and Switzerland as model countries for equitably “multi-solving” coronavirus and environmental problems.

The organisation is holding a series of Earth Day educational seminars to highlight the range of possible solutions for limiting average planetary temperature increase to two degrees Celsius, as envisioned by the landmark climate pact.

Johnston said that – similar to the sorts of changes necessitated by the climate emergency – the coronavirus requires individuals to shift their behaviour rapidly on a large scale.

“State and city leaders have stepped up,” Johnston added, explaining how local officials in the US have risen to the governance challenge in the perceived absence of a strong federal hand.

It is not just COVID-19, “people also are losing their lives to climate change,” she said, about the Earth’s long-term crisis. “But, you don’t put that on an obituary.”

‘Disrupting our lives’

Entrepreneurs from the private sector are among those troubleshooting both crises, and advanced technology may offer hope.

Steve Oldham is CEO of Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company piloting direct air capture methods for sucking carbon dioxide straight from the atmosphere. Even if all current emissions were knocked down to zero, a huge quantity of legacy emissions would still pose an enormous ecological threat.

Oldham told Al Jazeera that, like coronavirus, the climate emergency affects everybody, “but you can’t see it until you touch it”.

Starting with a large-scale plant for Occidental Petroleum in the US state of Texas set to launch in 2023, Carbon Engineering will “put it back in the ground from where it came in the first place”.

People also are losing their lives to climate change, but, you don't put that on an obituary.

by Ellie Johnston, energy lead at Climate Interactive

The company says the commercial facility will remove one million tonnes of emissions a year – the equivalent of 40 million trees absorbing the same greenhouse gas from the sky.

Multinational oil and gas firms such as Royal Dutch Shell continue to enhance commitments to climate neutrality by 2050, adding to their interest in carbon offset techniques.

But Oldham believes the pandemic will push back climate mitigation by several years, as governments and hard-hit sectors like energy and aviation become severely indebted, and capital expenditures dry up for diversification projects.

He also emphasises how coronavirus has reached such a magnitude that many more US alternative energy workers lost their jobs in March – from wind-power technicians to solar panel installers – than even those haemorrhaged by the retail or construction industries.

“People feel the effects of COVID-19: they can’t fly, can’t go to work, can’t go on vacation,” Oldham said. “This makes them much more determined to fix it. To me, that’s the fundamental difference, [by] disrupting our lives today.”

Big three emitters

Like other countries, China is flirting with the possibility of using coal-fired power plants for a much-needed economic boost. The superpower emits annually more than the European Union and the US combined, yet 71 percent of its existing coal fleet is more expensive to run than new on-shore wind or solar, Sriya Sundaresan, a senior analyst at Carbon Tracker, told Al Jazeera.

In the EU, climate advocates want to ensure that the European Green Deal guides legislators in bringing back the economy from the brink, as well as “future-proofing” the environment.

Richard Baron, executive director of the 2050 Pathways Platform, said, “Locking in the wrong infrastructure now would be devastating to long-term climate goals.” And a citizens’ assembly group in the United Kingdom has called the coronavirus a “test run” for greener lifestyles.

Across the Atlantic, US President Donald Trump has taken the opportunity created by the coronavirus to unravel environmental regulations on vehicle emissions and mercury pollutants from coal plants.

Meanwhile, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has heaped praise on Green New Deal ideas and looked at plans for a White House Office of Climate Mobilization.

Paula DiPerna, a special adviser for disclosure nonprofit CDP, said that “nobody really has a blueprint to get out of [the coronavirus crisis]” and rectify the unprecedented set of circumstances caused by a “one-in-a-hundred-year pandemic”.

But on the occasion of Earth Day, DiPerna told Al Jazeera that addressing climate change is indubitably a job creator and “the only growth industry in the world”.

“You have to be a groundhog to think that America’s infrastructure shouldn’t be a priority,” she said of “climate-resilient” public works initiatives that may help battle both crises at once. “The science is compelling, so we ignore it at our peril.”

Source: Al Jazeera