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Will the Current Pandemic Compromise Global Efforts Towards the Fight Against Climate Change?

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The current pandemic has dramatically changed the face of the world over the past couple of months. Not only are the countries’ economies being profoundly impacted, but more magnified political cleavages are taking place between great powers, as observed between the United States and China, for instance. The two countries are blaming each other in the context of the pandemic, and the U.S. is considering a range of sanctions, which could seriously compromise future cooperation efforts. However, it is possible to argue that the unprecedented impacts of the current crisis have almost overshadowed the changes that the environment has witnessed. The worldwide stay-at-home order has noticeably improved the quality of biodiversity. From air and water quality to wildlife restoration, data proves that the imposed quarantine regime has initiated some profound changes. For instance, in China, carbon emissions fell by 25% at the start of the year, and the proportion of days with good air quality was much more significant across the country. Similar trends were observed in Europe, saving 11.000 premature deaths, a report says. Some questions, then, arise: Can these positive trends last? Can they serve as a reference point for future efforts when it comes to environmental sustainability? In order to answer these questions, it is essential to look further and deeper to understand the implications that the current pandemic brings to the table.

In this article, I argue that the COVID-19 pandemic will compromise the global efforts to preserve the environment if world governments do not adopt a new framework for environmental governance. While environmental improvements have given hope to many during the quarantine, in reality, they seem to resemble a mirage because they primarily concern the short term. There is, unfortunately, no guarantee that such a dynamic will represent the new normal. Because climate change does not wait, it will be essential for major states to lead the fight against climate change to design a renewed, more flexible, and innovative framework to adapt to the current worldwide shutdown. This strategy is especially relevant as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has specified that the world will need to implement fundamental shifts by 2030, which suggests that the year 2020 is of particular importance. Given the time it takes to design and implement achievable targets, countries need to start revising national environmental plans this year.

On the one hand, it is rational to think that once social and economic opportunities will be available, global emissions will rise again, and we will find ourselves facing the same problem of climate change without having found any remedy. Perhaps, we will even have to face this environmental crisis more severely. On the other hand, what is even more critical is the idea that the crisis will delay (if not cancel) ambitious projects and significant investments related to the development of clean energy structures. The International Energy Agency writes in a report that the pandemic is expected to delay major renewable deployments as well as projects under construction. The report argues that the current situation has “a direct impact on the commissioning of renewable electricity projects, biofuel facilities, and renewable heat investments.” The United States is no exception as the Solar Energy Industries Association has stated that the economic crisis could lead the solar energy sector to lose a significant amount of its workforce and, ultimately, to slow down the green transition considerably. The crisis has projected a lot of uncertainties as to the future of environmental initiatives. It is, therefore, essential to find the right formula between current capabilities and needs.

However, in an effort to support small and medium-sized companies in the renewable energy sector in the immediate time, several governments have addressed the concerns linked to the cancellation of projects from a legal perspective. For instance, France and Germany, which have been the leading environmental voices in Europe over the past few years, adopted policy changes that allow for more flexibility in project commissioning by extending deadlines. While it is impossible to judge the effectiveness of these measures at the moment, it is worth noting that a number of governments are currently working along a similar line of action, which can potentially open new avenues for international cooperation. Countries that have started adjusting their environmental policy frameworks understood that it is a necessity to keep environmental matters as a top priority, despite having a growing list of tasks to resolve on their agendas. However, will such measures, which appear to set a basis for further environmental policies in a changing context, survive deeper economic troubles? Or will they even make any difference amid such a deep crisis?

Undoubtedly, it is worth emphasizing the increasing national public debts certain countries are experiencing (and will experience in the future), which might seriously compromise the development of future environmental measures. Governments might have to shift their focus to purely economic matters until the national (and global) situation settles down. For instance, while the President of France Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly mentioned that the country will fight for the life of every french citizen at all costs, the country now faces an exorbitant public debt. More precisely, the public deficit is increasing every day and might reach 9% of the GNP, while the public debt might jump by 115% in the coming weeks. To alleviate the dramatic burden of an economic depression, some experts have suggested the possibility of canceling the public debt by the European Central Bank, which is an idea that, today, seems to be in the realm of utopia. Despite these alarming statistics, it is necessary to give credit to both French and German leaders who clearly set the terms of the debate and launched the recovery process in Europe by proposing a European economic recovery plan.

Furthermore, to contain the spread of the virus and respect the global lockdown enforced by governments, major Summits have been postponed, thus jeopardizing the environmental dynamic that has been developing over the past few years at the global level (despite being relatively slow and criticized). This is the case of the EU-China Climate Summit and the COP26 UN Climate Summit, both likely to be delayed by at least a year. The international community expected these two major events to set new and more ambitious emissions standards, along with renewed commitments and partnerships. In the case of the EU-China Summit, the likelihood of future climate agreements seems now increasingly distant as tensions remain relatively high due to the numerous speculations around the coronavirus pandemic. For what concerns COP26, experts are becoming increasingly concerned that a long gap until the Summit is rescheduled would make it more challenging to regain the momentum required for countries to comply with new environmental standards and national plans on carbon emissions cuts. When discussing environmental matters at the Summit, states are required to prepare a precise plan outlining how they intend to stay in line with the environmental standards established by the Paris Agreement However, this is something that most countries have failed to do for a variety of reasons. Another concern that can be added to the list is the fact that in addition to major Summits, other UN environmental conferences on biodiversity and related topics have been postponed, which questions how this all will fall back together in the appropriate way and in the proper time.

Due to all these complications that have occurred in a relatively short period, governments will need to think about the best course of action to take that could primarily support long-term shifts. Countries cannot simply follow the exact strategy that has been planned before this crisis, as it is known to all of us that the pandemic will leave severe scars at different levels of society. Also, while it is true that we have observed environmental improvements, it would be inappropriate to limit oneself by thinking that people will automatically become more environmentally conscious after experiencing a cleaner environment in the short term. Even though we have responded to the current crisis quite rapidly, durable responses to environmental degradation need not only strong policy support and a shift in consciousness but also a new global framework that would integrate climate ambitions within the economic recovery process. Instead of seeing these two challenges as separate, it is essential to see them as complementary, thus creating an even more powerful mission. As a brief by the OECD confirms, “recovery efforts will give countries a chance to make much-needed environmental improvements an integral part of the economic recovery, rather than such measures being perceived as an additional burden at a time of crisis.” The development of green economies, international partnerships, increased investments, and the modernization of health systems around the world are such elements that have long been on the table, and that will need to become a reality if we are to achieve sustainable goals. The reality is that our societies learn from chaos and crises and are in constant reaction, which is something that history has repeatedly demonstrated. While this model leaves room for improvements, it becomes crucial to adopt a more proactive strategy. As the French say, “il vaut mieux prévenir que guérir” (prevention is better than cure).

Here, it would not be entirely appropriate to target specific countries or groups of countries. Because the fight against climate change is a collective matter, it would be most relevant to look at the situation from a more global perspective. This can be done by writing down several steps countries might be thinking of taking in order not to compromise environmental efforts made thus far. This strategy is especially important as the room for effective manoeuvre to take decisive action can become more limited as time passes, and as governments continue to consider economic measures to support polluting industries and other businesses. As Angel Gurria, OECD Secretary-General, stated, “governments have a unique chance for a green and inclusive recovery that they must seize — a recovery that not only provides income and jobs, but also has broader goals, integrates strong climate and biodiversity action, and builds resilience.”

In this sense, one of the recommendations aiming at limiting the impact of COVID-19 on climate change efforts would be to align short term objectives with long term ones through a combination of innovative policies in order not to put aside environmental concerns. It would be wrong to think that economic matters need to be resolved first, as a strong economy requires a healthy environment. It is not in any country’s interest to compromise the improvements made in recent times. A second recommendation would be for governments to initiate a work in which they can start integrating environmental matters into the economic recovery policies, which include the most affected areas of the society. Integrating both issues at the same time, would facilitate later initiatives for Green economies, which is essential given the Intergovernmental Panel’s predictions on Climate Change. Finally, it would be necessary for governments to support the ongoing positive dynamic that parts of the world population have shown toward environmental matters during the quarantine regime. Thus, governments should be able to promote more effective environmental messages to show the benefits that a given population can gain from a more healthy environment, which, surprisingly enough, is not as evident when we think of the current standards of living in developed countries. As the OECD suggests, “underscoring the benefits to well-being and prosperity from more resilient societies can strengthen public support for measures aimed at enhancing environmental health.”

From our partner RIAC

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Reusing 10% Will Stop Almost Half of Plastic Waste From Entering the Ocean

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It is possible to prevent almost half of annual plastic ocean waste by reusing just 10% of our plastics products. This is just one of the key findings of The Future of Reusable Consumption Models Report.

The report is a collaboration between the World Economic Forum and Kearney and suggests that shifting from single use towards a ‘reuse’ model of consumption can help society regain ground in the fight against plastic waste. Currently, 50% of global plastic production is for single use and only 14% of global plastic packaging is collected for recycling. The report outlines the urgent need to drive a systemic shift towards reuse models as an integral part of the reduce-reuse-recycle agenda.

‘Reuse’ is a production and consumption model gaining ground around the world as an alternative to single-use. In this model, consumer items are designed to be used several times, generating added value across the economy.

The findings are based on proposals by governments and NGOs around the world and research conducted with senior leaders from private and public sectors. The team conducted in-depth interviews, data analysis and scenario modelling to create first of its kind framework that can be applied across consumer product categories and geographies.

Three scenarios show how much plastic waste could be reduced from ocean and landfills if a reuse model is used.

Scenario One: Between 10 and 20% of plastic packaging could be reusable by 2030. This equates to 7-13 million tonnes of plastic packaging, representing 45-90% of annual plastic ocean waste.

Scenario Two Reusables make up between 20% and 40% of packaging, equivalent to 90–185% of annual plastic ocean waste or 25–50% of plastic landfill waste.

Scenario Three If between 40-70% of all packaging is reusable, it would equal anywhere from 185% to 320% of annual plastic ocean waste or 50–85% of plastic landfill waste.

Zara Ingilizian, Head of Consumer Industries and Consumption at World Economic Forum, said: “The shift from disposable consumer goods to reusables is still in its early stages, but there are already signs of progress. Just as recycling and composting were once considered eccentric and electric cars were written off as science fiction, when it comes to sustainability, attitudes about just what is viable are changing rapidly. Reuse may well prove to be among the most potent manifestations of that shift.”

Beth Bovis, Project Leader, Partner, Leader of Global Social Impact & Sustainability at Kearney, said: “We need to shift from merely “treating” or “handling” waste to simply never creating it in the first place. But any shift towards reusable consumer goods will depend on the choices and actions of the three driving forces of our economy: consumers, the private sector and the public sector. Each of these groups has a unique role to play in making reuse a reality. The need for a more reuse-centred economic model is urgent and grows more so with each passing year. It is up to all stakeholders to answer the call.”

Mayuri Ghosh, Head of Consumers Beyond Disposability initiative, Future of Consumption Platform at World Economic Forum, said: “When we talk of the three scenarios, it is worth emphasizing that any of these scenarios would represent extremely valuable progress over the present status quo. The plastic waste challenge has grown too large for us to simply recycle our way out of. With no global agreement over an ambition level to target plastic waste, the sooner we can make systemic and meaningful advance towards reuse, the better.”

The report goes into these scenarios in depth and provides detailed information on the methodology. It addresses some of the key challenges businesses and the public sector have faced about reuse, namely, how to make reuse scalable and viable.

The report aims to give leaders in business, government, civil society a clear picture of an alternative plastic waste-reduction model. The first half of the report discusses the three primary actors of systems change required. The second half presents the Reuse Viability Framework to help leaders make reuse scaleable and viable.

It calls for the public and the private sectors to collaborate on the development of reuse systems to meet the needs of our economy and the environment. It is part of the World Economic Forum‘s Consumers Beyond Disposability initiative, which focuses on innovative reuse solutions, and has been working to test and scale such solutions.

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Pandemic and climate change: The search for new models of sustainable development

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Is there a correlation between the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change?

Apparently not. The virus is supposed to weaken with high temperatures and – unlike winter months when people stay indoors more (a situation that favours infections) – in the summer people tend to stay more outdoors or in constantly ventilated rooms and therefore be less exposed to viral aggression.

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that a mild climate should inhibit the virus vitality, but the spread of cases in the southern hemisphere shows that this pathogen is more resistant to heat than “traditional” influenza viruses.

Now, with the so-called “Delta variant”, the number of infections seems to be rising throughout Europe, a sign that the virus maintains its aggressiveness even at high temperatures.

In fact, according to many experts and scholars, the pandemic that has caused a global crisis can be related to climate change insofar as the latter is connected to the increase in pollution rates caused by the disproportionate use of non-renewable energy sources (first and foremost, oil and coal).

Air pollution, in turn, causes damage to the respiratory system, especially in the weakest subjects who account for 90% of Covid-19 victims. The said damage can be considered co-responsible for the lethal consequences of the flu syndrome.

In August 2020, the scholars who participated in the Congress on the relationship between “climate, weather and environmental factors and the Covid-19 pandemic”, organized by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), came to the conclusion that the pandemic “reflects the state of tension between man and nature”.

According to many of the researchers who participated in the WMO Congress, the most severe consequences of the Covid-19 infection occurred in patients exposed more frequently to the air polluted by carbon dioxide.

Although unanimous scientific consensus has not been reached on the possible interrelations between the pandemic and climate change, authoritative studies show that the average rise in global temperatures increases the ability of the virus to spread, also due to the increase in rainfall and the average humidity rate since  the latter factors stimulate virus viability and resistance.

According to the “Fifth Assessment Report” of the (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the average increase in temperature and rainfall has altered the distribution and spread of pathogenic vectors. These factors, connected to the increased mobility of the population and to changes in the habitat of some animal species (such as bats) caused by man, can be considered co-responsible for the speed with which the Covid-19 virus has spread in all continents, particularly in areas where there are higher levels of industrialization and air pollution by CO2.

Due to the impact of the pandemic on industrial production and on the global economy, the pollution rate has, in general, decreased, also because the abrupt slowdown imposed on production and consumption has actually contributed to the decrease of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere which, in China alone, in the first four months of 2020 decreased by 10.3%, while worldwide the decrease was 5.8%.

Now, thanks to the success of the vaccination campaign that in Europe is reaching acceptable levels for collective security, many countries, including Italy, are preparing – with a new productive impetus – the recovery of the economy, disrupted by the pandemic effects. As highlighted in the works of the recent G20 in Venice, this recovery shall start from a new commitment to energy production with renewable sources and with the progressive and marked decrease in the use of polluting sources, such as oil and coal.

As seen above, the pandemic has caused at least one positive side-effect, i.e. the decrease in carbon emissions into the atmosphere. This may be the opportunity for a new “energy renaissance”, destined to last over time and to make production models more consistent with the environment and, as a result, with public health.

The protagonists of this paradigm shift in industrial production will be renewable energy sources, including marine energy and hydrogen.

In August last year, as part of the ambitious development program called “European Green Deal”, the European Union launched a real “Hydrogen Strategy” in which it is stressed that “clean” hydrogen (i.e. the one extracted from water through electrolysis) must be an integral part of the ecological transition envisaged and funded by the “Recovery Plan”, with the aim – in the very short term – to produce, by 2024, 6 GW per year of “green” energy from hydrogen electrolysis.

China is also moving concretely in this direction, thanks not only to the commitment made by President Xi Jinping, also at the G20, to drastically reduce carbon emissions by 2030 in compliance with the Paris Agreement of 2012, but also to the work of the very young Minister, Lu Hao, who heads a Department that includes six previous Ministries and is at the forefront in the strategy of ecological conversion of the entire Chinese production system.

This strategy envisages the widest use of energy produced by wave motion and sea currents. It is in this context that Minister Lu Hao has ordered the creation, in Shenzhen, of the “National Ocean Technology Centre” (NOTC), a centre for the study and development of advanced technologies for the production of “green” energy from tides – abundant and clean energy that can be widely used for hydrogen production. The latter, in fact, requires large amounts of electricity that, when produced with the use of traditional systems, such as oil or coal, does not contribute to improve environmental conditions.

With the use of marine energy to activate the electrolytic cells necessary to “separate” hydrogen from oxygen, a “virtuous” production cycle can be created by extracting hydrogen from water with energy supplied “at zero kilometre” from water itself.

Electrical currents from the sea can be produced with energy converters; with energy extractors from the tides; with thermal converters that exploit the differences in temperature at various depths, as well as with tools that can exploit even the differences in salinity.

With these technology and equipment huge amounts of energy can be extracted without causing any damage to the environment or to sea flora and fauna and CO2 emissions into the atmosphere will be reduced by billions of tons.

This is not science fiction but a tangible reality: every ocean has a stable potential overabundance of energy that can be extracted from waves, currents and tides – energy at lower costs than those of the other renewables.

Even the Mediterranean is to be considered an excellent potential source of marine energy.

In Ravenna ENI has already put into operation the “Inertial Wave Converter”, a wave energy converter designed to extract 50 Gigawatts from the cyclic motion of waves, currents and tides.

Together with Scandinavia, Italy is the European leader in the research and practical application of these technologies and their use in the production of hydrogen through electrolysis, with a pilot project in the Strait of Messina.

Worldwide, with China in the forefront, there are currently over fifty active projects for research and production of clean energy from sea water, part of which is dedicated to the future production of green hydrogen. In short, these projects are all dedicated to rebuild a relationship between man and nature that, far from dreaming of a “pleasurable degrowth”, i.e. a sustainable negative growth, aims to achieve a development model that is consistent with the needs of production, but also with the inescapable need for “turning green”.

We are coming out of a very severe health and economic crisis caused by a pandemic which – as authoritative scientific research and studies claim – has been made more widespread and lethal by climate change and environmental pollution.

If, as we can foresee, a new pandemic breaks out in a few years, it will be good for the world to be prepared, having made the ecosystem healthier and cleaner in view of hindering the spread of new viruses with a global prevention strategy, also at environmental and climate levels.

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Global Warming and the Danger to Coastal Communities

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A heat dome has settled over the Pacific northwest, extending into Canada and stretching as far south as Las Vegas, Nevada.  It is not unusual for temperature records to be broken by a degree or so.  This time they are being shattered.

In some places previous records have been exceeded by as much as 10 degrees F, and   scientists note this has no precedent in modern record-keeping.  Portland, Oregon reached an all-time high of 116 degrees F, least expected in a place known for a moderate climate.  Just a little north and inland, Lytton, British Columbia recorded an almost unbelievable 121 F (49.6 Celsius) on June 29, 2021, setting a new record for Canada as a whole.  The previous high for Lytton, which had stood since 1941, was surpassed by 9F. 

While one cannot ascribe individual extreme events to global warming, scientists expect their frequency to increase.  Also a warming globe is going to raise the temperature of sea water.  This causes more evaporation into the atmosphere forming more clouds and thunderstorms, and it also increases the probability that hurricanes and typhoons will develop.  So the reasoning goes.

Another consequence of the warming is sea level rise (SLR).  It happens in two ways:  higher temperatures heat and expand the water itself and, secondly, melt ice sheets as over Greenland and the Antarctic.  A new study published in Nature Communications this weekprojects the threat of SLR on global coastal communities in numbers of people affected and comes up with the startling figure of 410 million. 

Perhaps the threat is being realized already, as seawater seepage is one theory for the partial collapse of the 12-story condominium in Surfside (a suburb of Miami, Florida).  Last week on June 24th at 1:05 am, a part of the building simply slid down burying the sleeping residents in a pile of rubble.  It is possible the seepage weakened the foundation by destabilizing the soil until the foundation buckled.

Another theory focuses on the construction and the reinforced concrete.  Beach sand tends to be contaminated with salt, and, according to this theory, when used in the concrete, it accelerates corrosion of the iron rebars which will fail, weakening the concrete.  Worse still, engineers have discovered from the wreckage that damaged columns appear to have less steel than the design drawings required.

Modern concrete can last a 100 years when properly maintained (which is expensive) but can break down in half that time and repairs can cost more than the original cost.  For example, Frank Lloyd Wright’s celebrated Fallingwater, a home built near Pittsburgh has cantilevered balconies over a waterfall — it is a dramatic design thanks to reinforced concrete.  Completed in 1939, it requires continual expensive maintenance on the concrete, and despite this major repairs had to be undertaken in 2002 to prevent structural collapse.  The cost of all this is of course several times the original construction cost.

Florida is not the only state suffering coastal threats.  In Texas, a $26 billion plan modeled on Dutch dikes has been passed by the legislature to protect the Galveston region.  Yet with global warming, the threat of rising seawater levels for coastal communities all over the world is only likely to get worse.

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