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