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
Researchers unveil roadmap for a carbon neutral China by 2060
Chinese president Xi Jinping told the UN general assembly on 22 September that China would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The announcement sparked a huge response and gave rise to speculation as to how this would be achieved.
On 12 October, research into a possible route to that target was published by Tsinghua University’s Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development (ICCSD) – the most authoritative roadmap to emerge since the commitment was made. If China follows the recommendations of the report, it could mean tougher energy-saving and emissions-reductions targets for the 14th Five Year Plan (FYP), a more ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) for 2030, with yet faster and deeper decarbonisation to come from 2030 onwards.
Decarbonising for the 1.5C target
The 2015 Paris Agreement aims to limit climate warming to 2C (compared to pre-industrial levels) at the end of the century, while pursing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5C. That 1.5C target has been controversial because it requires greater emissions cuts and it was only added to the text of the agreement at the last minute.
Professor He Jiankun, project leader of the new study and chair of the ICCSD’s academic committee, said at a press briefing on the research that “achieving carbon neutrality by 2060 essentially means a long-term deep decarbonisation process oriented at the 1.5C target”. The director of the ICCSD is Xie Zhenhua, formerly China’s special climate envoy. Xie was also overall supervisor of this research project.
According to the roadmap presented in the study, by 2050 China must achieve net zero carbon dioxide emissions, with emissions of all greenhouse gases down 90% on 2020 levels, if it is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The authors did not offer a specific roadmap for reducing emissions between 2050 and 2060, but said that emissions cuts should be increased, with negative emissions growth in the energy sector and more capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide using carbon sinks and carbon removal technologies.
The roadmap implies that all greenhouse gases are included in China’s 2060 pledge – something that observers had wondered about. But one expert close to China’s policy on non-CO2 greenhouse gases told China Dialogue that for now it remains an academic assumption, and official documents would be needed to confirm the government position.
Although the recommended roadmap is ultimately closing in on the 1.5C target, this does not mean China will immediately fast-track deep decarbonisation. The roadmap has two stages: before 2030 China will cut emissions according to an “enhanced mitigation scenario”, with a tougher 2030 NDC target and increasing efforts to reduce emissions. But that alone would leave China far from even the 2C target. However, the researchers propose much tougher measures after 2030, which will bring China into line with the 1.5C target. Assuming these recommendations are adopted, China will see a later, but steeper decline in emissions than it would if it set out to hit the 1.5C target immediately, with a carbon peak by 2030, an energy consumption peak around 2035, and carbon emissions approaching zero by 2050.
At the launch, He Jiankun explained that “the economy and the energy sector are hugely complicated systems, with a lot of inertia, so a transition will take time”. Rapid implementation of the absolute carbon cuts needed for the 2C or even 1.5C target would be very difficult, and China still needs to develop. So in the first stage, staving off additional emissions rather than cutting existing emissions should be the priority to bring about a carbon peak. But after 2030, the speed with which China reduces emissions will “far outstrip the developed nations”.
Implications for near-term policy
There is a great deal of interest in how China’s 2060 carbon neutrality target will affect the 14th Five Year Plan (for 2021-2025), which is currently being drafted, with this being seen as a test of China’s level of commitment.
The researchers also make suggestions for energy-saving and emissions-reduction targets in the 14th FYP, such as a 20% share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption by 2025, and a carbon emissions cap of under 10.5 billion tonnes (2020 figures for these are expected to be 16% and 10.3 billion tonnes respectively).
“We have to control any rebound in coal use during the 14th FYP and work towards peak coal, or even negative growth,” said He.
The researchers also recommend China toughens and updates its NDC for 2030, lowering carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by over 65% on 2005 levels and reaching a 25% share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption.
Speaking at the launch, Wang Yi, a member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (China’s top legislative body) and vice director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Science and Development, said that 14th FYP targets should remain tough and be expanded: for example, by including overall caps – in particular a carbon cap – alongside existing efficiency targets (such as carbon and energy intensity). Other experts have also called for a carbon cap in the 14th FYP.
Wang also pointed out that a package of legislation will be needed to ensure 14th FYP climate targets are met. This includes an Energy Law currently being drafted, an ongoing revision to the Energy-Saving Law, and a Law on Combating Climate Change being prepared. “The Law on Combating Climate Change will only reach the statute books if a carbon cap is at its core – if not, it loses a raison d’etre as other laws can replace it,” Wang said. Lower level regulations, such as for carbon markets, must also keep up, he said.
From our partner Chinadialogue
COVID-19 has given a fillip to biodiversity
The COVID-19 outbreak caused many problems for the world, but in return gave the planet’s environment and biodiversity a chance to breathe. The high mortality rate may be worrisome, but it provided us with the opportunity to think more about how we should treat biodiversity in a better way.
Biodiversity is an important feature of life explained by the vast diversity of plants and animals, which is a non-renewable resource and its loss will be irreparable, Kioumars Kalantari, head of the natural environment and biodiversity of the Department of Environment said.
The growing importance of biodiversity is due to its role in maintaining the stability of ecosystems, because in an ecosystem, the greater the species diversity, the longer food chains, resulting in a more stable environment, he added.
According to him, today the protection of biodiversity, habitats, and natural ecosystems is among the most important indicators of sustainable development in the world.
Fortunately, Iran benefits from rich biodiversity due to special climatic, geographical, and topographic conditions and characteristics, and more than 8600 species of plants and 1300 species of vertebrates live in the country, he highlighted.
Unfortunately, the environment faces a variety of threats and challenges, including pollution, habitat destruction, climate change, sand and dust storms, natural disasters such as droughts, floods, and increasing disease outbreaks, he noted.
He went on to say that despite all the efforts that have been made nationally as well as internationally worldwide, the environment today is no better than it was in the early twentieth century.
The sudden prevalence of COVID-19, followed by lock-downs and restrictions around the world, reduction in human activity, the evacuation of highways, reduction in travel, air, and land transport, and a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions, has benefited the nature much, he explained.
It greatly improved air quality and reduced the risk of lung and cardiovascular diseases, key environmental indicators that have been steadily deteriorating for more than half a century, remained fixed, or moved towards improvement, he emphasized.
The extent of the disease and the human casualties may be so painful that it does not give us a chance to rejoice in the healing process of nature and the environment, but the good condition of climate and nature can be a fillip for each of us on this planet, especially those in charge, to think more about our past actions and slow down our exponential pace of unsustainable development and the destruction of valuable biological resources, he also highlighted.
Perhaps changing our plans and behaviors to use more of renewable energy, while increasing the use of telecommunications facilities such as video conferencing, webinars, online meetings, can greatly reduce travel as well as greenhouse gas emissions and thus help preserve nature and valuable biodiversity treasures, he said.
Biodiversity conservation is in fact the protection of ourselves and the resources without which we cannot survive, he stated, adding, human health depends on the health of other creatures and the environment in which they live.
The outbreak of the coronavirus and its pathogenic consequences highlights the importance of the dependence of the health of all organisms on the planet on each other and the environment.
“Our Solutions Are in Nature” which expresses the importance of nature in responding to the challenges we face in terms of sustainable development and the necessity of comprehensive cooperation to achieve a future in harmony with nature, he added.
According to experts, “the most important and largest public asset of any country is the environment”, unfortunately, due to the wrong approach and underestimation of its vital importance, its capacity is declining every day, and it cannot be exchanged or bought, although some officials, especially economists, suggest ways to price these environmental resources, they are invaluable, he stated.
Kalantari further expressed hope that by living in harmony with nature, humans will be able to benefit as much as possible from the valuable resources and to protect and preserve the biological richness of the world in the best possible way.
Why human absence prospers nature?
Pointing out that protecting the planet is important to humans, and we need to maintain the best conditions on Earth after Coronavirus, Mohammad Darvish, a member of the National Security Council for the environment, said that the pandemic has caused the earth to breathe deeply, and now the wise man is faced with the question that “why, when human activity as a member of the ecosystem decreases, not only does nothing happen, but the condition of nature improves.”
Think of bees being removed from nature. In this case, the integrity of the Earth’s environmental property, the reproduction of many species and humans themselves will be damaged, or if brown bears are removed, soil fertility will decrease, or if wild boars are removed, water permeability will decrease and floods will increase, he explained.
Therefore, there have been wise in the creation of all plant and animal species or even insects, and have contributed to the earth’s resilience, he emphasized.
Why has it now happened that man, who considers himself the best of creatures, that must be more responsible, has behaved in such a way that his absence is in favor of nature and the earth?
Such happening should give us a lesson to change our development programs in favor of nature and try to understand the laws of nature, instead of spending budgets on warfare, larger and more horrific weapons, he noted, implying that environmental research and health is now more essential as well as improvement of the education system so that in the post-corona crisis world we can appear wiser, more knowledgeable, and more responsible.
From our partner Tehran Times
Global Warming: Past as Prologue to the Future
Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust
If the vice-presidential debate lacked direction, hurricane Delta did not. It slammed into the Louisiana coast as a Category 2 causing widespread damage with its 100 mph winds, then continued inland as a Category 1 storm. If Delta sounds like an unusual name for a hurricane, it is.
The World Meteorological Organization has a list from A to W of 21 potential storm names. The letters Q, W, X, Y and Z are omitted. In all there are six lists meaning that the 2020 list will be repeated in 2026.
Using names for storms facilitates identification in communications when compared to the prior method using latitude and longitude particularly when the storm itself is moving.
So here we are in 2020 with 25 storms so far. The residents on the Louisiana coast have had a double whammy with hurricane Laura slamming them earlier in the last week of August. It was a deadly Category 4 with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph. Just 7 mph short of a Category 5 (the deadliest) Laura was only the fourth Category 4 to strike Louisiana since records were kept.
In addition to the numbers of storms, there are other climate anomalies. September this year has been the hottest on record and Death Valley reached a temperature of 130 F (54.4 C) the highest ever observed. September 2019 in turn had also been the hottest on record for our planet.
If there are storms along the coasts and flooding due to a warming ocean, inland it is not only warmer but drier. Forests are like tinder needing only a lightning spark or a downed electricity line to set them off. Thus the forest fires in southeastern Australia and California.
Europe too is warmer. Forest fires particularly in the south, and inundation are more frequent. Reading in England for example has just suffered the wettest 48 hours ever.
The south of France usually associated with blissful weather experienced torrential downpours with more than a half meter of rain (about 20 inches) in a day. It was an event Meteo-France noted that occurs once in a hundred years. And then it happened again. Storm Alex, the cause of this misery, hit France and also Italy and England. Floods and landslides caused serious damage north of Nice destroying roads, bridges and houses. In adjoining Italy a section of a bridge over the Sesia river collapsed in the rising waters. Affecting the Piedmont, Lombardy and Liguria regions, it dropped over 23 inches (0.63 m) of rain. The Po river rose more than 9 ft (3 m ) in 24 hours.
The key lesson from all this is that global warming is making rare events more common, that the window for action is narrowing, and that the longer such action is delayed the more onerous will be the burden on humanity. In the meantime, the global warming already built into the system will continue to affect climate for the foreseeable future.
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