climate change

Year in review: Climate lessons from a pandemic year

Photo credit: United Nations. 

By Anders Lorenzen

Back in January this year, in scientific circles and publications the talk was about a mysterious new virus originating in China with a high infection rate, which had received little mainstream media coverage. Little did the world know back then that it was to dominate 2020 more than anyone could have imagined.

But very soon talk of the virus was on everyone’s lips and it had spread outside China and a pandemic was now unavoidable. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared it as such and country after country enforced lockdown measures.

This put all other issues on the backburner including climate change, but that was to come back in a renewed shape and form that few would have predicted in 2019.

Some have argued that due to climate change we will see a surge in pandemics. Others argue that COVID-19 (derived from Corona Virus Disease 2019), as the virus was dubbed by WHO, is a result of our consumption of animal food products. And by switching to a plant diet you would not only reduce the risks of climate change (due to the high carbon footprint of animal agriculture) but also of future pandemics. 

A mixed picture

Not long after the pandemic was a reality, articles started to flood the web about how the pandemic could change our lives forever, and how in many ways it could assist our ability to tackle climate change. One of the notions being shared was that as the major emitters, first of all, China and followed by Europe and India being in lockdown, a lot of pollution would disappear. Even in China, the rare event of seeing the blue sky was now a reality. The argument was that once people saw what they had missed, and saw the cost of growth they would not go back to the old ways.

Soon after this as emissions did indeed fall. And there was speculation that our oil use might never again beat the peak consumption in 2019, this view shared by some energy analysts. 

But perhaps we were naïve enough to think that we would never go back to the pre-pandemic normal and that once the pandemic was over we would do things differently.  And so the ‘build back better’ or the ‘green recovery’ slogans were born which were adopted by many governments. 

But the reality is somehow different. 

As China came out of their second lockdown, they were keen to get their economy back on foot no matter the environmental cost. And one way to do that was to re-activate coal mining which also created jobs. But as China already had an oversupply of coal these jobs were just symbolic which were not actually needed. 

Then not long after, the hosts of the 2021 UN climate summit COP26, the UK, announced that the crucial climate talks were to be postponed by a year, thereby delaying much-needed climate action.

And a worry was surfacing in some climate circles. They worried that due to the severe economic impacts for the global economy once the world does recover from the virus economic growth would accelerate. This would be to make up for the damage, but as a result, it would turbocharge climate impacts and emissions. And the impacts from a climate perspective could be much worse than if we hadn’t entered lockdown. 

In addition, the picture became more complex as the world’s thirst and demand for oil had been significantly reduced. Many oil companies were struggling, and even the clean energy sector was not excluded from this economic hardship. The clean energy sector had, prior to the pandemic, been going through a boom, but as the pandemic started to bite, this sector also experienced job losses and the shelving of projects.  

The science denial 

Climate advocates have for long been accustomed to climate denial as organisations, politicians and individuals pushing back on climate change spreading falsehoods that climate change is a hoax. But after the breakout of COVID-19 climate advocates were no longer the only targets, for lies and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 were many places to be seen across the web. These claims ranged from the most outrageous lies that the pandemic was invented by governments to control their people, to anti- mask-wearing and anti-vaccine theories. With this, it was not only the reality of climate change that was being targeted but a full-scale denial of science, claims often repeated by US President Donald Trump.

Greenpeace UK activists replace the destinations on the road signs around Westminster in London, to read ‘Green Recovery’. Photo credit: © Suzanne Plunkett / Greenpeace.

The green recovery

Perhaps COVID-19 also fast-tracked sustainable policies such as making more space in cities for zero-carbon transport options such as walking and cycling. In many boroughs in London, the initiative to encourage people-friendly streets was rolled out. These initiatives became a global phenomenon and spread to cities across the globe. Though the jury is still out as to whether the public as a whole is ready for it, these initiatives faced backlashes in many places with protests and demos.

Back to normal or not

Throughout the pandemic, the word normal has been thrown around a lot, either in terms of when will we get back to normal? Or we must make sure we don’t go back to normal?

But what does normal actually mean? Many advocates have pointed out that if normal means burning lots of fossil fuels, disaster capitalism and unsustainable consumerism, it is not somewhere we want to or aspire to return to. 

The pandemic has presented a golden chance to rewrite how our societies should look post-COVID-19. But as of now, it is unclear what direction it is tilting towards, and no doubt campaigners will do their best to steer in one direction or another depending what their campaigning goals are. As governments recover and set new priorities and policies, this could be a very rocky ride indeed.

The new business

Sadly one of the negative consequences of the pandemic has meant many people have lost their jobs, causing worries in households across the world.

Some people have argued that some of the companies which have gone bust were actually running very unethical business. Theirs was business with practices which were a disaster for action on climate change as well as for the people they employed. This presents a new opportunity and challenge for the new businesses being set up post the pandemic. It has been argued they must not make the same mistakes, but take a more sustainable direction protecting the environment and workers. But this is not a given and it will all depend on the mood, and there’s always the fear that growth above everything else will be prioritised. Growth for the sake of growth.  However, a growing number of analysts, economists and, yes, even politicians are starting to come to the realisation that the best way to protect the economy is to take the climate change challenge seriously, as the economic consequences of climate inaction are already starting to spiral. 

Climate action after the pandemic

While it is hard to say whether it is a result of the pandemic or a result of being in the lead up to COP26, several countries and blocks such as the EU are setting new and more ambitious climate policies. 

But it is a reality that governments, even those who in the past have been hostile to climate action, can no longer ignore the climate crisis. And there is a need to motivate the public with positive messaging following a year when many have endured misery due to the pandemic. 

This is likely to have been a key contributor to a wave of new ambitions. This has also been the key message behind the incoming Joe Biden presidency in the US. He will be busy in his first days in office undoing many of Donald Trump’s efforts to slow down climate action, and this platform of new ambitions from the world’s largest economy is likely to inspire many other nations to do more. 

But all of this comes with a big caveat: how much money will there be left in the coffers with many governments on the edge of recessions following the impacts of COVID-19 shutdowns causing increased government spending on, for example, furlough schemes to keep economies going? 

But one thing is certain, now more than ever activists and green groups will not let governments off the hook! 

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