COVID-19 global lockdowns potentially bring down this year’s carbon emissions up to 7 percent. This number is close to the ideal 7.6 percent drop that the world needs to commit every year between now and 2030 to reach the 1.5°C Paris target as suggested in a United Nations report. Two observations emerged. First, the sheer scale of modifications to economic activities that is needed to save the planet, that the current decarbonising and greening approaches are struggling to achieve. Second, the need for a wilful decision to make deep changes, and the imperative for well-calibrated policies to prevent massive unemployment and increased poverty that result from unplanned disruptions to economic activities.
Decarbonising and Greening: The Challenges
Decarbonising and greening are among the most dominant strategies to address climate and environmental issues. They essentially entail product substitution. Solar and wind to replace coal plants, electric to replace conventional vehicles, more efficient lighting and building to replace older models, biodegradable to replace plastic, among others. Despite the availability of environmentally friendly alternatives, decarbonising and greening efforts are progressing slowly and results have been modest at best.
The most striking evidence is the 2.0 percent rise in carbon emissions in 2018, which was the fastest in seven years, despite renewable sources’ increasing share in global energy consumption. The growing emissions were the result of expanding energy consumption that nearly doubled the 10-year average. In other words, at the global level, renewable sources act more like an additional source of energy instead of a fossil fuel replacement, to feed the increasingly energy-hungry world.
The phenomenon is hardly surprising. Isolating carbon emissions from the overall economic growth reality constrains governments and businesses from making meaningful low-carbon transitions. Considering the growth imperative, governments need to strategically consider which sectors to tax and subsidise, ensure just transition, and decide on infrastructure investments, among others, while facing various actors having competing interests in the domestic setting. The costs of solar and wind powers have gone down significantly in the last decade, and green businesses are justifying their value by emphasising job creation and positive contribution to the economy while saving the planet at the same time. But until governments are confident that low-carbon alternatives do not jeopardise, or indeed can be more beneficial for growth-related interests, decarbonising and greening will generally remain slow.
Along the same focus on growth, businesses are likely to embrace more sustainable alternatives if doing so gives them more benefits, or at least does not hurt their profitability. Businesses thus wait for reliable policies that will minimise investment risks, metrics that can measure environmental, social, and governance objectives in financial terms clearly, and investment returns and executive salary that are linked to environmental and societal benefits, before they can be certain about greening their operations. It is of little surprise, therefore, that in 2018 less than 7,000 companies of the millions worldwide declared their emissions, and only one in eight managed to decrease their annual emissions every year. Greening businesses is thus a long way to go.
From Growth to Earth
The narrowing time window necessitates urgent and bolder measures beyond decarbonising and greening. The highcarbon element is just a part of the larger demand-driven economy comprising mainly of natural resource extraction, production, consumption, and waste generation. As a reduction in economic activities brings down with it the emission levels as evidenced in the current COVID-19 situation, the focus needs to enlarge from high-carbon to production-consumption activities.
Moreover, the link between increasing consumption and environmental stresses is well recognised. Every year since 1970s, the world’s consumption has been exacting toll on Earth’s resources more than what it can regenerate. Our consumption today needs an equivalent of 1.6 Earths with advanced economies, and by extension the richer segments of society, disproportionately consuming more. In 2016, consumptions in North America and Western Europe needed 4.95 and 2.98 Earths respectively, whereas Asia and Africa needed 1.46 and 0.83 Earths respectively. Natural resource depletion driven by high consumption is consistent with 2.3 million km2 of forest being deforested globally between 2000 and 2012 with only about 35 percent being reforested.
Security of the Poor
High consumption causing damages to nature poses direct human security challenges especially for the poor. About 80 percent of world’s poor live in rural area where natural resources make up of 50 to 90 percent of their livelihoods. Natural resources are indeed the natural capital of the poor. Degrading agricultural land has thus affected over 1.3 billion people, mostly in the developing countries. The COVID-19 pandemic has confirmed that the poor are among the least able to cope during crises. While strengthening social protection measures and other anti-poverty policies is undoubtedly desirable, the vicious cycle can only be broken by tackling the problem at its source.
Nature takes time to heal. Forest in average undergoes about 2 percent recovery per year. Contrary to popular belief, human efforts do not help ecosystem restoration significantly since ecosystem recovery is best left to nature itself.
Reducing consumption demand is therefore critical not only to bring down emissions, but also to give nature the time and space it needs to recover from extraction damages, and to give back to the poor their dignity and the resilience they need in times of trial through sustained livelihoods.
Towards a New Paradigm
The current economic hardship caused by abrupt COVID-19 interventions necessitates governments to think of ways to save jobs and businesses particularly small and medium enterprises, re-employ those who have lost their livelihoods, and alleviate poverty. While this is certainly desirable, the pandemic experience has provided some points for reflection which suggest that recovery measures need to consider other factors beyond the economy to avert future climate-induced disasters.
The economic miracles post-World War II and post-Great Depression undoubtedly present a hopeful picture for a postCOVID-19 world. There is a need to be mindful, however, that those eras operated neither on 1.6 Earth overshoot, nor had they transgressed interconnected planetary boundaries within which the Earth can function safely the way we do today.
A post-COVID-19 green economic recovery that involves a sweeping investment switch to low-carbon alternatives across multiple sectors including energy and electricity, land-based transport, industry, and buildings, may be compatible with the Paris target by year 2030. Considering a lack of ambitious climate actions that has manifested itself in global energy growth outperforming decarbonisation so far, it remains to be seen whether the current global pandemic can provide the impetus towards meaningful green recovery.
In light of these limitations, a bold determination to switch to a just and equitable earth-centred economic paradigm is needed, and a consensus among people, governments and businesses is required to effect a significant transformation in high consumption lifestyle. In comparison to today’s consumption-driven economic model, this may entail low, no, or declining growth. The alternative model may not necessarily lead to increased unemployment, poverty and inequality, however, as studies have shown that with well-calibrated policies, progress without growth is possible.
Given the fast-closing time window for emission reduction, attempts at decreasing resource demand relative to the previous levels through greener products, increased efficiency, circular economy, net-zero, and sustainable resource management may help, but may not be sufficient. Additionally, considering the ecological deficit reality and the accompanying plight of the poor, a fundamental rethink for a well-designed economic model aimed at an absolute reduction in consumption to reach an ecological balance is imperative. Post-COVID-19 recovery will play a critical role in saving Mother Earth, the poor, and humanity from climate disasters.