The Covid-19 pandemic has knocked many countries sideways, but the crisis should not be wasted. As they emerge from lockdown, it is time for them to re-focus their energies and efforts on sustainable growth.
At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, climate activists cheered saying that it was a reset button that the world badly needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Across the world, air pollution improved drastically. A new study showed a 17 per cent decrease in carbon dioxide emissions at the height of the global lockdown in April. But surely zero emissions due to inactivity is not a desirable outcome out of this crisis.
Prolonged economic inactivity can lead to severe consequences. Some have warned of the climate backlash when economies restart after the crisis. In social media, #BuildBackBetter and #RecoverBetter are trending hashtags among climate change circles on how to put the world back on a post Covid-19 economic recovery pathway that is green and sustainable. Countries cannot go back to the same model of chasing GDP growth, regardless of the damage done to the climate and environment.
That this is the moment in history to change the trajectory of the world to a greener and more sustainable future cannot and should not be missed. Three primary stakeholders are critical to the climate fight.
That this is the moment in history to change the trajectory of the world to a greener and more sustainable future cannot and should not be missed.
Saving lives and livelihoods must indeed be the most immediate task for governments at this time. The appeal from more than 100 countries for emergency financing to respond to the global health crisis has prompted the establishment of an International Monetary Fund rapid credit and financing facility to meet the funding demands of US$100 billion. The speed of response and magnitude of assistance is unprecedented for the IMF. The World Bank has similarly mounted an impressive response, committing over US$160 billion in financial assistance to the world’s poorest countries.
Many countries have scrambled to inject stimulus packages to save jobs, salvage industries and resuscitate economies. The G20 economies have committed over US$5 trillion. In Asia, billions of stimulus dollars have also been committed by governments keen on getting on the road to economic recovery. But to return to business-as-usual, on the back of mounting government debts, without a transformational plan to build low-carbon alternatives or digitalize jobs will not only be short-sighted but extremely foolhardy. Governments must strategise transformational change in their recovery plans.
A World Economic Forum report has highlighted the shortfall of investment in climate action as one of the most worrying risks to have emerged from the global crisis. Brown measures that simply bail out national companies and airlines with no conditions or push for cuts in sustainability investments may push us further into a vicious cycle of climate degradation, greater biodiversity losses and even more frequent pandemic outbreaks.
The European Union has committed itself to a €750 billion recovery plan with green strings attached. A quarter of the funding must be committed to climate action with a “do no harm” principle embedded in key decisions. The aim is to channel private investments towards technologies that will help the EU achieve its climate goals. Canada and France have similarly placed conditions on their Covid-19 recovery aid. Hopefully other governments will follow their lead.
Led by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), some 155 companies with a combined market capitalisation of US$2.4 trillion are joined in an alliance “Uniting Business and Governments to recover better”. Supported by the United Nations, the alliance calls on governments around the world to “prioritize a faster and fairer transition from a grey to a green economy”. Informally, an EU-led “green recovery alliance” comprising business CEOs, environmental groups, investor groups, trade unions, think tanks, and parliamentarians has banded in support of post-pandemic stimulus packages that prioritise sustainability goals and put climate change at the front and centre.
Obviously not everybody can travel like Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist. The global crisis has shown that thousands of meetings, conferences and seminars can be done without creating massive carbon emissions through transport and travel. What this crisis has succeeded in doing is to dramatically accelerate the adoption of digital technologies in a matter of weeks across the world. This week, the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat had planned to host a series of meetings, which would have attracted thousands of delegates to the German city of Bonn. The physical meetings have been postponed but technology has enabled parties, especially those from the global south, who would otherwise not be able to afford to, to participate virtually. The digital conduct of business meetings and negotiations should be sustained.
But, here’s the cold hard truth
Unfortunately for the climate movement, one fact stands true – there has been no global leadership for climate change for a long time. With the world’s largest emitters still unwilling to commit to more ambitious emissions targets and the current spat between the US and China at the World Health Organization, the momentum for change can only be driven through strengthening multilateralism and international cooperation. This is a point that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been emphasising since the start of the crisis and again drove home at the recent Petersberg Climate Dialogue. Recovery plans must be aligned with climate goals and Sustainable Development Goals in order for countries to emerge more resilient and sustainable.
Echoing the UNFCCC presiding officer at the opening of the June momentum climate meetings, who quoted Winston Churchill to “never let a good crisis go to waste”, this is a golden opportunity for countries to embed climate targets into economic recovery plans, and for corporations to channel private finance towards sustainable investments and individuals to play their part so that together we can #RecoverBetter and #BuildBackBetter.
Sharon Seah is Senior Fellow and concurrent Coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre and Climate Change in Southeast Asia Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. She is also editor of Building a New Legal Order for the Oceans.