World has golden opportunity to go green
Over the past several weeks, media reports have highlighted how clean the air and water have become in various parts of the world following many weeks of strictly enforced lockdowns. Various rivers, lakes and oceans have become cleaner than ever, while the air in the previously highly polluted plains of Punjab has become so clear as to offer a glimpse of the mighty Himalayas for the first time in more than 30 years.
Indeed, the world has become a much cleaner place ever since the coronavirus pandemic began in China five months ago. First, way back in December, it was China that immediately announced a total lockdown, including the shutting down of all industry, in a very large zone surrounding Wuhan, the city where the virus is believed to have originated. Subsequently, as the virus took hold of many other nations, notably in Europe as well as Asia and the Americas, it brought almost all human activities that produce pollution — such as transport and industry — to a grinding halt.
These months of dramatically altered human behavior have not just led to an improvement in the quality of air, water and land across the world, but have also led to wildlife sightings in many cities and towns, which had seemingly lost all connection with the animal world decades ago.
In the US, carbon dioxide emissions are forecast to drop 7.5 percent this year — the first drop since climate change negotiations began nearly three decades ago. Similarly, the EU has already seen a 58 percent cutback in emissions. In India, the quality of air across all major cities has shown a dramatic improvement, providing instant relief to hundreds of millions of people. With most planes grounded, airline emissions dropped by 28 million tons in March alone — the equivalent to taking 6 million cars off the roads for an entire year.
Many people have been acclaiming this as a victory for nature and have begun extrapolating the data to position this as the way climate change can be slowed, or even halted and reversed. With human activities suspended to a large extent, it is highly possible that the first half of this year may well see a significant drop in global carbon dioxide emissions for the first time.
But calling this a win for the climate change campaign is wishful thinking. Indeed, most countries will see a dramatic turnaround in economic activity as soon as the lockdowns are ended. Political leaders will be under tremendous pressure to push through immediate and urgent economic revival measures in order to provide succor to the billions of people who have suffered tremendously under the lockdown. Nations are likely to forget or at least ignore their commitments toward halting climate change made under the Paris Agreement and instead focus single-mindedly on economic revival. Already some signs of what the second half of the year could look like are visible in China. Beijing has pushed heavy industry as it begins to ease the lockdown, with the number of coal-fired power plants approved in the first three weeks of March being greater than the number approved in the whole of 2019.
Other countries are likely to follow the same path as and when they begin to end their lockdowns and promote economic activities. Globally, we will see pollution levels stage a strong comeback as the economic stimulus worth tens of trillions of dollars — the largest in history — translates into production and transportation as usual. The economic stimulus provided following the 2008 global financial crisis was energy-intensive and led to a sharp rise in emission levels.
Thus, unfortunately, climate change is not likely to be anywhere near the top of the global leaders’ priorities when they get down to boosting their economies. Indeed, even the fate of the postponed UN climate change summit in Glasgow, which was initially scheduled for later this year, is highly uncertain, as the convention center where the talks were to have been held has been converted into a hospital to treat coronavirus patients.
Unfortunately, climate change is not likely to be anywhere near the top of the global leaders’ priorities.
Ranvir S. Nayar
However, by ignoring climate change, the world is doing itself no favors. It is missing out on a golden opportunity as it seeks to dig itself out of the hole that coronavirus has dug for it. A slightly bolder vision from leaders could help the world ensure that the economy and climate commitments are no longer adversarial, but complementary.
World leaders have been offered a golden opportunity to place green policies and incentives at the heart of economic stimulus, thus paving the way for a global green deal to ramp up the battle against climate change with a greater clean energy commitment than ever seen before. The opportunity is clearly there and so are the benefits. The only thing to be seen is whether today’s leaders have the moral and political courage and the vision that is needed to create a new world order.
- Ranvir S. Nayar is the editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India that encompasses publishing, communication and consultation services.