Economic Recovery from Covid-19 and Climate Action: Twin Challenges.
The following has been published by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), of which I am a fellow:
The decisions nations make this year to recover
economically from the Covid-19 crisis are likely to set in motion the
extent to which, over the next three years, we control carbon emissions.
This could set the course of the climate crisis up to 2050 and beyond.
Chris Rhodes FRSA explores the dual challenge that nations face in
recovering economically from Covid-19 and tackling the climate crisis.
Awareness that if we are to mitigate climate change
we need to curb our use of fossil fuels is now part of the public
psyche; although the vast scale of change needed to check global warming
to within necessary limits is less readily comprehended. Likewise, the
hugely varied consequences of a rise of two degrees Celsius – rather
than one or just half a degree less than this – does not seem obvious
unless we appreciate the massive amount of additional energy absorbed into the earth system that this represents.
It is sometimes tempting to despair that zero-carbon will be attained by 2050,
and the chances of doing so by 2030 appear far less compelling.
Nonetheless, the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions that have been
‘achieved’, as an inadvertent consequence of locking down to control the
transmission of Covid-19, might be taken to indicate that significant
progress along this path is indeed possible. According to a study published by Nature Climate Change in May, the daily global emissions of carbon dioxide in April 2020 was almost one sixth of 2019 levels in the same month.
The question arises, however, of whether such an ameliorated emissions level might be preserved in the longer run. The subsequent ‘rebound’ in CO2 being poured into the atmosphere to within about 5 percent of 2019 levels, somewhat dilutes optimism about this.
Clearly, by simply curbing the billion tonnage of fossil fuels that we burn, CO2
emissions would be attenuated, but with economic catastrophe as an
unwelcome bedfellow. Huge sums of money are being pledged by governments
across the globe to stimulate their economies post Covid-19, totalling
$9 trillion (about £6.5 trillion). Since, with the aid of these fiscal
booster-jabs, the die will be cast for the global economy over the next
three years, how the money is spent is critical. If it does not coincide
with a dramatic and permanent fall in CO2 emissions, climate targets will become unattainable. In short, the time is now or never.
However, according to a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report,
a ‘green alternative’ is within our grasp. Not surprisingly, this
requires a principal emphasis on the proliferation of wind and solar
energy, but also that buildings and industries be made more energy
efficient, and that electricity grids are remodelled and updated. The
creation of millions of new jobs across the world is vital, particularly
in those nations where very many have been rendered unemployed, as a
result of the lockdowns imposed to hold the Covid-19 crisis in check.
The report concludes that rather than injecting finance into the
prevailing high-carbon economy, more jobs can be created by investing in
such activities as retrofitting buildings, fabricating wind farms,
installing solar panels, inaugurating new power networks, implementing
greater numbers of electric vehicles, improving the energy efficiencies
of industry, long-distance transportation, and appliances in general. In
addition, a substantial shift would be needed towards more end-use
renewables, biofuels production, and creating environmentally sound
urban infrastructure. It is thought that such a ‘sustainable recovery
plan’ could generate an annual 9 million new jobs.
European Union, for example, appears poised to initiate a swathe of
green as part of its recovery, globally, little money has so far been
directed toward low-carbon industries, with the majority of the pledged
funding aimed towards their high-carbon counterparts. For example, the aviation industry is targeted for a $33 billion (nearly £24 billion) bailout.
As the Executive Director of the IEA, Fatih Birol, has commented,
governments had an excuse to support these industries, as a first
reaction to dealing with the suddenness and scale of the Covid-19
crisis, since “the first recovery plans were more aimed at creating
firewalls round the economy.” However, some governments are still
investing in high-carbon projects, such as coal-fired power stations.
There is an additional danger, namely that the currently available cheap and plentiful oil
might act to derail the essential transformation to renewable energy.
Especially at this critical time, to allow this to happen would be very
short sighted, to say the least, and it is the longer game we must
prepare for. As has been stressed elsewhere, the oversupply of oil is
temporary and will finally be drained away into the enlarging backdrop
of declining conventional fields.
A considerable opposing force to making such vital changes is the incentivisation of global capitalism, which, as a result of its massive resource consumption is now reckoned to be eroding the safe,
operating space of human civilization, leading to breaches of key
planetary boundaries, such as land-use change, biosphere integrity and
climate change. There are also indications that it may be more difficult
than is generally thought to transform to a low-carbon society, and
until renewables have been established on a sufficient scale to achieve net energy payback, a large-scale expansion of low-carbon energy capacity will rely upon subsidies from the fossil fuels, which are, in any case, becoming increasingly scarce.
Most probably, a redesign of our system of industrialised
civilization to use less energy overall, is the critical approach to
addressing these issues. Primarily this will need to be through
strategies of relocalisation: producing more of what we need – including
food and energy – at the local level, and growing local economies.
Energy efficiency is of equal importance to local, low-carbon energy
generation, for example, better insulation and draught-proofing of
buildings, while working from home or locally, avoids commuting and
reduces demand for transportation fuels.
In order to address the most pressing challenges of society, it is necessary to move beyond sustainability and towards regeneration.
This means embracing complexity and interconnectivity, rather than the
separateness and linear thinking that has led to the current
industrialised system, which is failing. Permaculture is an integrated,
systems-design methodology that can be applied across a range of
different situations and scales, and may provide the best route toward
achieving future resilience. As a fusion of indigenous knowledge with
modern science and technology, permaculture offers a means to meeting
both essential material needs for energy, food, water, sanitation and
also non-material requirements, across all societies, while preserving
autonomy and harmony with nature.
This is a largely ‘grass roots’ approach, made through the efforts of
individuals, but united by a sense of shared values and common purpose.
We can continue to ask how long we have but the changes are already
with us, and the cracks in the walls of the prevailing structures signal
us to take urgent action. We must largely work within the framework
that already exists, since there is neither time nor resources to raze
it down and begin again from scratch, while total collapse would be
catastrophic. Actions can be taken on the scale of communities, for
example, taking the Transition Towns approach and – on the level of
local businesses – adopting circular economies. Both underpinned by
permaculture thinking, they follow the example that, in nature, there is
no such thing as waste, only resources.
Professor Nate Hagens, a former Vice President at investment firms
Salomon Brothers and Lehman Brothers, who now teaches ecological
economics at the University of Minnesota, has said:
“Not only are we speeding, but we are wearing energy blind-folds at the
same time. But the momentum of our current system forces us to have
conversations about a bigger system not a smaller one – so the correct
and valid plans and blueprints are not discussed… It is a perfect storm
– and when the waters recede we are going to have smaller, simpler and
more local, regional economies.”
Hence, preparing the ground in advance of any collapse might prove
the sounder strategy; this means shifting the focus away from the
proverbial global village towards a globe of villages. The currently
enforced working from home may become the new normal. Chris Rhodes left school at 16 and went on to become the youngest
professor of physical chemistry in the UK. As well as his peer-reviewed
academic publications, he has written a novel, University Shambles,
poetry and a children's book. He is an advisor on low-carbon energy to
the European Commission, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and
of the Linnean Society of London and has been involved with the
Transition Towns movement for 10 years.