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
Climate Change Problem: an Emerging Threat to Global Security
Climate Change is one of the greatest challenges faced by humanity. The Greenhouse–gas emissions and over-exploitation of natural resources result in a rise in temperature which brings floods, droughts, a rise in sea level, and other destructive events. The problem is that climate change is a global bad, and it requires collective efforts and cooperation to limit its effects. One state cannot control Climate change alone because it does not take it into borders. Formally, the climate change issue was a matter of low politics, but the inception of the 21st century brought an understanding that it poses greater threats than traditional ones. The Covid-19 plays a major role in the realization of steps taken towards climate cooperation. States often make climate promises but cannot fulfill these promises because of the fascination with development and ignore climate change. But now world leaders have realized that the lessons of COVID-19 can tackle global climate change problems otherwise it will make this world difficult to live in.
The newly elected President of the United States (US) Joe Biden inaugurated a virtual climate change summit with 42 world leaders. It includes leaders from Russia, China, Turkey, Israel, India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Setting aside all the differences, he invited leaders from those countries that are a major contributor to Greenhouse gas emission and those who are most vulnerable to climate change risk. In this summit, the Biden administration asked the world leaders to take actions to combat climate change collectively as the climate is a global good and requires collective efforts to tackle climate change. Biden has announced an aggressive new goal policy for greenhouse gas emissions. 2030 committed the US administration to reduce its greenhouse gas emission to 50-53%. The National Intelligence Director of President Avril Haines told world leaders that the climate change issue is no longer remains a peripheral issue but at the center of foreign policy. Other states such as France and Russia also promised to limit their greenhouse gas emission to 42-46% by 2030. It also committed China to play its role in the summit by announcing its willingness towards coal reduction. India reiterated its target of 450 GW of non-renewable energy by 2030 and announced to launch the “US-India 2030 Climate and Clean energy Agenda 2030 Partnership”. The Brazilian Environment Minister argued they need funds to enforce their plan to eliminate deforestation and carbon emission from their country. Vice president Harris argued that climate actions are necessary to tackle climate crises and to promote job opportunities. . Now, the US has put climate change at the center of its security and foreign policy because climate change is not only changing the pattern of the environment but it speeds up the geopolitical competition, undermine security and provoking ethnic conflicts. The climate change results in cyclones, floods, the rising temperature that disrupts social and economic conditions that threaten food security and human security.
By exploring the climate solution, the virtual summit announced the need to increase the public finance for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. Biden emphasized the importance of investment in the public and private sectors to achieve the collective goal of net zero-emission. Further, climate actions require cooperation at the national and sub-national governments to speed up efforts to transform communities in line with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Another change that needs to be highlighted at the national level is that the government must not subsidize renewable energy industries and keep their prices high to contain their over-exploitation. It is easy to make promises as states do, but the problems emerge in its implementation. For decades, climate change has raised concern but states often prioritize development over the environment. This is real-time for states to limit their emission and comply with the promises they have made in the summit otherwise it will lead to never-ended consequences.
COVID-19, a super-fast placed event that emerged from one part of the world and quickly spread throughout the entire world. By its speed of diffusion, it reduced all the emissions at an expensive cost, thus halting the global economy. So still we have time to think about other efficient means of emission reductions to prevent countries from the intolerable burden of Climate Change. But the challenge is how to keep that emission reduction after the pandemic. Second, just an as sharp and instant change of behavior is possible with COVID-19 so to deal with climate change a behavior change is also possible, thus shifting to the low carbon emission all depends on seriousness and credibility to the mortal threat. Third, a key implication of COVID-19 to climate change is that how to reorganize the economy so, in the post-pandemic world, it is the human interaction that would determine the organization of the economy. Thus future will determine whether a low contact economy with a clean environment would be a lower carbon emission economy or not. Further, states must focus on how to open up the economy in the Green Revolution. Another major issue which the world leaders failed to address is the global problem of Covid-19. Despite the technological advancement and huge development, zoom diplomacy began with a distorted voice from the most advanced countries of the world. There is a need to cooperate on a matter of Covid-19 so that states think on the wider notion of climate actions. Thus we have to use all these lessons in the context of climate change to make this world a better place to live in.
Rails, Roads And Emissions
It is common knowledge that emissions affecting climate are least for rail travel in comparison with airplanes or road vehicles. Consequently the $80 billion allocated to rail in an otherwise laudable budget appears paltry.
Why is the US not investing in rail? The usual reason given is that distances are so vast that it’s a no-brainer for business travellers to rely on commercial airlines. But the way the technology is advancing, and as Europeans (and the Chinese) have demonstrated, a network of high-speed rail can offer a greener alternative.
Trains are getting faster and new innovations like tilting trains lower the cost of replacement tracks. If 200 mph is being breached more often, then 250 mph should be in our sights. And Elon Musk has proposed vacuum tubes to remove wind resistance and reach even higher speeds.
Yet a 250 mph rail network with average speeds in excess of 200 mph would revolutionize the concept of travel. New York to Chicago in five hours and east to west coast overnight with the possibility of visiting neglected areas out of reach with expressways and airplanes would bring new growth and dynamism where it is needed.
A point to note is prevailing interest rates. They are so low historically that railroad bonds at a competitive interest rate would be snapped up especially if they were guaranteed by the government.
While one can agree with the aims and compassion clearly evident in the president’s proposals, the process to achieve them is less clear. In particular on climate change the goal of net zero emissions within a decade is laudable. But a speedy switchover to electric vehicles raises questions: Simply, how?
The system is geared to internal combustion engines. Mechanics train for years to become proficient. Aside from that, has anyone wondered what happens to all those large electric car batteries when they have to be replaced? Since lithium used in them is a finite resource, it would have to be recovered or the 80 million tons estimated to be the world’s store would eventually be depleted.
Another issue is the electricity used to charge the batteries. If it comes from a coal-fired plant, are we back to square one? Currently about a quarter of the electricity generated in the US comes from coal. Of course dealing with pollution at the source (like a coal plant) is easier.
The number of Americans living paycheck to paycheck (roughly half) is just one more reason the changeover to electric vehicles might take a while; they just don’t have the funds. Add to these numbers the elderly living on fixed incomes or the ranks of the unemployed and one can understand the scale of the problem.
One can laud the US president’s goals but we need to see some action (even proposals) to facilitate them.
Global Environmental Governance and Biden’s Administration
Being the largest emitter of greenhouse gas in the world, it is the responsibility of U.S to contribute expeditiously to manage the environmental issues at domestic and international level but the previous government, under the leadership of Trump, took back seat and reversed all the decisions of Ex-president Barack Obama to combat the climate change. Unlike this, New Elected President, Joe Biden, who is very enthusiastic and firm to fulfill all the promises regarding climate change which were done during the general election’s campaign. Moreover, he views climate change a thwart to national security. One of the biggest achievements associated with Biden’ administration regarding environmental issues is to bring U.S back into Paris Climate Accord and brought executive order’’ Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring science to tackle the climate crisis’’ on the surface.
A flurry of changes to U.S environment policy is going to play a constructive role in global environmental governance under Biden administration. Even before elections, climate change was one of the top priorities and aimed to put the U.S on a path which leads towards ‘’ Zero Net’’ greenhouse gas emission. In the very early of His office days, He is very committed to deal with the climate change as they hosted ‘’ Climate Day’’ to introduce government climate centric approach to emphasize on the climate change. Biden administration also ordered to revoke a permanent issued for Keystone XL oil pipeline which trump issued for extraction of oil and energy which is dangerous to national ecosystem. In addition to this, they are also very active to promote US role to tackle the climate change at domestic and abroad. At domestic level, Biden’s actions are speaking louder than the words as he has ascribed the climate crisis with a national emergency. At the time of his inauguration, Biden said: ‘’ A cry for survival comes from the planet itself, a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any clearer’’. He also directed his cabinet to work on the policy of ‘’ social carbon cost’’ to measure the cost of actions and how costs will impact the climate change. He endeavors to control the climate change by keeping a strict eye on the big project’s reviewing process before working under the National Environmental Policy Act which calculates the social costs of greenhouse gas emissions.
On international level, Biden has been striving to improve the spoil image shaped by the previous government regarding global environmental governance as he has declared to rejoin the Paris Climate accord which would help to reduce the greenhouse gas emission. In the result of this action, Biden was welcomed by the General Secretary of the United Nations and French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron by saying ‘’ Welcome Back to the Paris Agreement’’. Moreover, Biden Administration is very determined to convene a global climate summit on the earth day to encourage leaders to align themselves with scientist to alleviate the impacts of climate change. On international forums, US need to cooperate and compel the economic trade partner to take actions to combat with climate crisis. One of the essential steps taken by the Biden administration is to manage the climate refugees which aim to make strategies to compensate the climate affected migrants.
The thin majority of democratic in the senate does not only limit the possibility for Biden to achieve climate change reforms along strong anti-climate lobbyist business group who are inimical to the reforms particularly relevant to vehicle, power plants and oil and gas drilling industries. Without new climate legislation from congress, it would be not an easy task to implement the climate agenda across the borders. The vocal resistance comes from the coal production sectors which result in burning of fossil fuels and caused of greenhouse gas emissions. Whereas, few sectors are opposing the agenda there are also companies specially electrical vehicles are exclusively offering assistance to Biden for the sustainable development. Undoubtedly, environmental organizations and scientists community applauded the Biden decisions but few business groups have also filed a lawsuit against Biden to not stop the new permit for oil and gas drilling. There are also concerned raised by the community that climate actions will delete many jobs and cause of upsurge in unemployment percentage across the federation.
It is very evident from the ambitions of Biden’s action regarding climate crisis that he is very interesting to mitigate and curb the climate change but it will require highly comprehensive strategy aims to manage the reforms in laws while taking congressmen in confidence because most of them are not in favor of climate actions due to clash of interests. On the other hand, there is need to work on renewable energy resources at domestic and international level and for this US should compensate the companies to compete with the old capitalized firms which do not want safe and peaceful planet. Moreover, there is need to bring reforms in existing environmental treaties and their compliance process which should be strictly followed by the harsh actions against the violators. The process of financing the agendas which are very environment friendly and transforming the resources to the periphery states should be done swiftly to improve the environment across the globe. The aims of achieving sustainable development should be promoted and supported by the US across the world.
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