COVID-19 and Tackling Climate Change

The COVID-19 pandemic offers governments around the world new possibilities to build green and just recovery projects addressing their health and economic challenges, to change course to avoid locking in dangerous levels of coal, oil, and gas production.

According to the 2020 Production Gap Report released by the UN, the world needs to decrease fossil fuel production by 6 percent per year to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Despite this evidence, some countries, including Australia, Canada and the US, plan to increase their fossil fuel production putting the Paris Agreement goals and the world’s climate in jeopardy. At the same time, some major economies, including China, Japan, and South Korea, have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 or earlier.

“This year’s devastating forest fires, floods, and droughts and other unfolding extreme weather events serve as powerful reminders for why we must succeed in tackling the climate crisis. As we seek to reboot economies following the COVID-19 pandemic, investing in low-carbon energy and infrastructure will be good for jobs, for economies, for health, and for clean air,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “Governments must seize the opportunity to direct their economies and energy systems away from fossil fuels, and build back better towards a more just, sustainable, and resilient future.”

The report makes it clear that there will be severe disruption unless countries drastically reduce their production of fossil fuels. Its main findings include:

  • To follow a 1.5°C-consistent pathway, the world will need to decrease fossil fuel production by 6 percent per year between 2020 and 2030. Countries are instead planning and projecting an average annual increase of 2 percent which by 2030 would result in more than double the production consistent with the 1.5°C limit.
  • Between 2020 and 2030, global coal, oil, and gas production would have to decline annually by 11%, 4%, and 3%, respectively, to be consistent with the 1.5°C pathway.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns have led to short-term drops in coal, oil, and gas production in 2020. But pre-COVID plans and post-COVID stimulus measures point to a continuation of the growing global fossil fuel production gap, risking severe climate disruption.
  • To date, G20 governments have committed over US$230 billion in COVID-19 measures to sectors responsible for fossil fuel production and consumption, far more than to clean energy (roughly US$150 billion). Policymakers must reverse this trend to meet climate goals.

The Biden Presidency, Climate and Biodiversity

The new Biden administration beginning in 2021 in the U.S. promises to place the fight against global warming at the centre of U.S. foreign and national security policy. This is a much needed and heartening development after four years of catastrophic U.S. disengagement under outgoing President Trump, 

However, environmentalists also point to the need to tackle the rapid collapse in the world’s biodiversity. The dramatic declines in species and ecosystems jeopardise our air, our clean water, the insects that pollinate our crops, the micro-organisms that enrich our soils, the pharmaceuticals obtained from organisms, the coral reefs that sustain healthy fisheries, and much more.

Populations of wild vertebrates have declined 60 percent since 1970, and insects by 45 percent. Since 1990, the oceans have lost half of their shallow-water coral, and much of what remains may disappear by 2050. Each year the world loses an area of tropical forest the size of Costa Rica. Current rates of extinction for plants and animals are between 100 and 1,000 times higher than the background rate for the past 10 million years. As many as 1 million of the world’s estimated 8 million to 9 million species are vulnerable to extinction.

The leading cause of biodiversity losses is intensive land use, which has damaged, fragmented. and eliminated ecosystems and habitats critical to species survival. A third of Earth’s ice-free terrestrial surface is now devoted to crops and grazing, and vast expanses have been destroyed by logging, mining. and urbanisation. Wetlands have shrunk by 85 percent, and 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest has disappeared.

A third of global fisheries are overexploited, and 60 percent fished to capacity. We have also introduced invasive species, both as competitors and predators, and exposed endemic ones to new pathogens. Finally, new forms of pollution are poisoning living organisms, reducing their supplies of food and interfering with their metabolisms. Every year, the world dumps another 300 million to 400 million tons of toxic sludge, heavy metals, and other industrial poisons into the water. More than 80 percent of global wastewater is discharged untreated, directly into the environment.

Environmentalists are calling on Biden to raise biodiversity conservation to the status of climate change mitigation in U.S. foreign policy, and use the full range of diplomatic tools, including foreign aid, trade and other instruments, to reward responsible environmental stewardship and take action against those governments endangering biodiversity. 

We do indeed live in interesting – and perilous – times. It is crucial that national and international leaders take immediate and decisive action to halt this cataclysmic damage and set in course a global green recovery.

Dr Anne Morris, Chair of ICJW Committee for Environment and Sustainable Development