Coronavirus: Double-Edged Sword for the Climate

*Quick note to my amazing readers 🙂 Unlike blog updates, notifications of when I update the essential daily headlines on my site won’t come to your inbox, but if you are interested in the headlines that I think are important, you can either follow my blog since I’ll post updates on the big ones, or just check back on my site since I try to refresh them regularly 🙂 I’ll also try to include a few lighthearted posts here and there to take a break from the corona overload. In the meantime, back to the blogging:

It’s nearly impossible to keep up with all the head-spinning ways that coronavirus has upended our world, but one development that’s flown relatively under the radar has been the postponement of the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow that was set for November 2020 (and will now be held next spring).

This would’ve been the 26th U.N. climate change conference (known as COP26), with the apogee taking place in 2015 when the landmark Paris agreement was hashed out and then signed by nearly 190 countries that pledged to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

But as Amy Harder of Axios reported, “This isn’t just another major convention scuttled by coronavirus. This is a make-or-break moment as countries face pressure to increase their ambitions to tackle climate change,” she wrote on April 1. “The Glasgow summit is meant to be where nations present the first batch of more ambitious plans, as called for every five years in the 2015 deal.”

Many scientists say more ambitious plans are long overdue because countries are falling woefully behind on meeting their emissions targets. Those targets, which are voluntary, were designed with the goal of limiting planetary global warming to no more 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Instead, the U.N. conceded late last year that the world is all but assured to blow right past the “point of no return” target. In fact, global greenhouse gas emissions reached a record high in 2019, a year that capped off the hottest decade ever recorded on the planet.

Despite increasing evidence of more extreme weather patterns fueled by climate change, countries failed to make headway on the issue at last year’s climate talks, in part because of opposition to stronger targets by countries such as India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

And of course the enormous elephant in the room is the United States — the second-largest emitter — which under President Trump withdrew from the Paris accord, a huge blow to the global effort to combat climate change.

While it doesn’t look likely that governments will make the drastic emissions cuts that scientists say are necessary to avoid catastrophic warning, the coronavirus pandemic has sparked hopes that the widespread lockdowns will reduce emissions on their own.

And so far they have. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects a 7.5% drop in fossil fuel emissions for 2020 — which would be the biggest cut in U.S. energy emissions since at least 1990, according to a recent AP report. In addition, satellite imagery from the European Space Agency has shown a stunning drop in air pollution around the world.

In fact, Marshall Burke, a researcher from Stanford University, calculated that improvements in air quality in China may have saved the lives of 4,000 children under 5 years old and 73,000 adults over 70, according to a March 12 article in Politico. The article also noted that even more conservative estimates would put the number of lives saved at roughly 20 times the number of deaths from the virus directly.

Some environmentalists also hope that rare sightings of swans floating in the once-muddy canals of Venice will stir a greater awareness of what nature can look like if people put more effort into preserving it.

But most experts say these trends are only temporary. After all, the current situation is untenable: Factories are empties, planes are idle and shops are closed. Once the pandemic ebbs, the priority will understandably be getting back to business. People’s livelihoods are on the line, so jobs will inherently take precedence over longer-term challenges like climate change. And if stimulus packages enacted by countries such as China rely on coal-heavy industrial output, emissions will soar once again.

In that sense, it’s probably good that COP26 was delayed, to give governments time to respond to the pandemic before hopefully refocusing their attention on the simmering climate crisis.

That crisis has become more and more tangible as people experience extreme weather patterns firsthand, whether it’s the recent wildfires in Australia and California, epic heatwaves in India or increasingly ferocious storms like Hurricane Maria. Major corporations like Amazon and even ExxonMobil have all pledged to cut emissions, and there’s been a groundswell of support, particularly among the young, for more aggressive government action on climate change.

But leaders at COP26 will confront the same basic dilemma that has stymied action for years: Real change requires real sacrifice. While renewables like wind and solar are taking major leaps forward, the world is still overwhelmingly fueled by coal. That’s an inescapable fact.

As Australian Ambassador Arthur Sinodinos told me in my recent cover profile of him, “I think one of the things we have to be upfront with people about is that there are costs of change. Yes, there are costs of not changing, but often what happens in politics, people tend to say, ‘Don’t worry, the cost isn’t too much.’ You can’t deal with the public like that. You’ve got to give the public the facts and let them make up their own mind.”

And it’s hard for politicians to make the case to the public that bearing the pain now will save us more pain in the long run. Voters think short term, not long term. But perhaps coronavirus, which revealed the importance of preparing for long-term threats, will make that case easier to sell.

Still, it’s not always easy for people to connect the complex dots of how a threat like climate change amplifies other threats — including the spread of infectious diseases like Covid-19. As Greenpeace noted in an April 10 article, “about 75% of all emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic — meaning they come from animals. These include, among others, SARS, H5N1 avian flu, and the H1N1 influenza virus. An increasing number of animal carriers of diseases are changing their behaviour and migrating to new areas due to climate change and habitat loss.”

That doesn’t exactly make for a catchy political soundbite though. And that gets to the biggest wild card in the coming climate debate: Trump. Most people don’t realize that the U.S. has not technically dropped out of the Paris climate agreement. Under the rules, the formal withdrawal process is not finalized until Nov. 4, 2020 — one day after the U.S. presidential election. Needless to say, the question of whether the U.S. officially quits the Paris agreement or rejoins it will be dictated by who wins on Nov. 3.

So it could be America’s political storm, more than any force of nature, that determines the next chapter of our planet’s climate evolution.

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