Friday, July 31, 2020

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.

While the 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.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Will the Virus Go Away – “Post-Covid”, or Recalibration?

I am suddenly filled with a mixture of confusion and uncertainty, moments of disbelief (or more truthfully, denial), and, at times, near panic. Then, my more logical perspective resurfaces from the mire of those other emotions, bringing with it a sense somewhat closer to calm and reflection, and attempts at forward thinking. Naturally, to think too far ahead, and in too much detail – trying to second guess the future – is not of great comfort when negotiating uncharted depths, and so I try to anchor myself into the present moment, and as far as possible, salvage the positives. Such is my visceral reaction to the UK “lockdown”, announced yesterday evening [March 23rd] by the Prime Minister, following what has been done in other countries, and while this strategy appears absolutely necessary and correct, the psychological dimension feels almost more difficult to confront than the practical aspects entailed by it. I think this may be connected with a sense of loss of control, which I imagine others might feel too, in all nations across the world, in the midst of the present crisis. That said, I am just guessing, as these are really weird times, the likes of which we have not seen before, certainly not in Britain., the above was a “note to self”, rattled down on March 24th, and some four months on, having weathered the initial blast of the lockdown, I still find the “one day at a time” approach helpful. In more difficult moments, it also serves as a necessary lifeboat, although where this might be drifting is not in full view. The term “post-Covid” has entered the popular lexicon, which seems to imply that there is a certain destination in sight; a kind of “before and after” line of demarcation, having ridden out the Covid-19 storm, and which promises, if not a “back to normal”, a socially and economically more spirited time ahead, which undoubtedly, all governments are anticipating with bated breath, while those of the EU nations wrestle together over how to fund the post-Covid “economic rebuild”.

The reported cumulative numbers of COVID-19 cases (and deaths) are available from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, currently amounting to a global total of over 14 million, of whom more than 600,000 have died. However, when excess deaths are considered, in the majority of places, a greater number is obtained – sometimes massively so - while in Belgium, Switzerland and Germany, it is somewhat less, and in Norway and South Africa, even below what would be expected under “normal” circumstances. Clearly there are some subtle undercurrents, but precious little doubt that more infections, and indeed deaths, will follow.

The impacts of Covid-19 and its lockdowns on the global economy are of a scale not seen since the Second World War, and yet the World Economic Forum has identified the current situation as one of potentially great opportunity, where economic policy can be redesigned to reduce poverty and increase social mobility. It is indeed typically the poorest and most disadvantaged who have been hardest hit by the effects of the pandemic, which has highlighted the disparities, inequalities and divisions across societies.From a mathematical modelling study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A, it was concluded that lockdowns alone are not enough to control the pandemic, but if combined with the majority of the population wearing facemasks, vastly less transmission of the contagion could be expected, with a flattening of second and tertiary waves, and the disease being brought under control. Should no mitigations be put in place, it has been estimated that from a second wave “a “reasonable” worst-case scenario would see between 24,500 and 251,000 deaths related to coronavirus in hospitals alone.” The peak would be in January/February 2021.

In the UK, as of July 24th, it will be compulsory to wear facemasks in shops and supermarkets, with a non-compliance penalty of up to £100, even though there are warnings that the facemask law might prove unenforceable The effectiveness of facemasks is also supported by a German study, which indicated a 40% drop in infection rate when they were worn on public transport and in shops, while the risk of transmission is lower in outdoor environments. However, the largest study to date, in the UK, has also emphasised the importance of maintaining social distancing. Methods to expand tests onto the scale of millions a week are also being urgently sought, as is thought will be of considerable assistance in controlling the virus; it is also believed that contact tracing will prove a highly effective strategy.

Naturally, the question arises, of whether the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus will eventually go away, or if we must learn to live alongside it, as we have with other viruses, although that of our present woes seems far more virulent than colds and flu. It is an alarming prospect that the immunity from protective antibodies toward the coronavirus may last for only months, and it may prove that "Vaccines in development will either need to generate stronger and longer lasting protection compared to natural infection, or they may need to be given regularly." The idea is also challenged, that because someone has already had Covid-19, they are subsequently immune to it, despite initially becoming antibody positive. David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation's special envoy for Covid-19, has warned that since it is unknown how long it might take to develop a treatment or a vaccine, "We have all got to learn to live with this virus, to do our business with this virus in our presence, to have social relations with this virus in our presence and not to be continuously having to be in lockdown because of the widespread infections that can occur. "

This is an extremely sobering prospect, to say the least of it, and it may well be that the practices of social distancing, handwashing, wearing facemasks, will be with us for as long as the coronavirus is, and it is not that the world is currently experiencing a second wave, but never recovered from the first Meanwhile, with the lifting of the lockdowns, we enter the “post-Covid” period, but where economies struggle to fully recover, unemployment rises, and barely accustomed behavioural changes need to be maintained; hence, this time may be more of a recalibration, rather than setting a new chapter. Not surprisingly, there are psychological implications attendant to living with Covid-19, which also must be considered

The need to adapt to a virus that may be with us for some while yet, might serve as a broader prompt to forge social equity, community resilience, and a necessary redirection of resources. It is greatly heartening that the US Senator, Bernie Sanders, has exhorted that “this unprecedented moment in American history – a terrible pandemic, an economic meltdown, people marching across the country to end systemic racism and police brutality, growing income and wealth inequality and an unstable president in the White House – now is the time to bring people together to fundamentally alter our national priorities and rethink the very structure of American society.”

As part of this effort, he has proposed that the US military budget be cut by 10%, and the money instead used to address inequalities on home territory; Sanders has also acted to stop funding being available for a war against Iran.

Perhaps this might be the dawn of a new kind of "attack", one that heals societies from within, and dissipates the anger and fear that drive conflicts of all kinds, and on all scales? In this spirit, The World Economic Forum’s proposition that economic reform be introduced in the service of social equity is similarly to be applauded. Living in an industrially advanced, Western European country, infectious diseases had appeared to be long since vanquished foes, from my childhood memories, and in family histories, but I am rudely reminded that complacencies, of all kinds, are both inappropriate and misguided.

In the strange manifestations of this odd and awkward year – undoubtedly one that has provoked great existential contemplation for all of us – life appears all the more precious, fleeting and impermanent, and maybe a time to be inspired, to imagine what might be achieved by the human family uniting in shared purpose, action and identity.