Politicians taking easy way out of recession will cost planet


Politicians taking easy way out of recession will cost planet

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Eureka Sound on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic is seen in a NASA Operation IceBridge survey picture taken March 25, 2014. (Reuters)

US President Donald Trump on Monday signed an order opening up 1.5 million acres in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas companies, threatening fragile ecosystems in Alaska. Days earlier, a report said that, to counter the rapid ice melt in the Arctic, companies drilling oil there had been forced to chill their drilling fields in order to be able to use their machines.

Trump signed the order even though he is in a difficult re-election campaign and could be booted out of office on Nov. 3. Unconcerned, Trump announced that his decision would enable the creation of thousands of jobs. Indeed, at a time when the global economy is passing through its worst-ever phase, for political leaders the creation of jobs and revival of the economy at any cost is the easiest way to show that they are in control and are taking bold steps to help. This claim is even more crucial for leaders heading into an election.

While Trump has never been someone environmentalists could look up to, sadly the news from other parts of the world on how governments are dealing with the recovery from the coronavirus crisis is equally gloomy. Consider this from Europe, which is a self-declared leader in ecological protection and green policies. In June, barely a fortnight after France ended a strict lockdown that had been in place since March, Paris’ municipal authorities issued a red alert over air pollution and imposed speed limits, as well as curbs on the movement of traffic in the city center.

Since mid-June, air pollution levels all over Europe, notably in large metropolises like Paris, Milan and Brussels, have spiked — particularly nitrogen dioxide, which is released by combustion engines. As offices reopened and restrictions on public movement were lifted, an overwhelming number of commuters avoided using public transport due to fears of contracting the virus, preferring to use their cars instead. For instance, Transport for London was running only 12 percent of its normal services in mid-July as people shifted to cars. As a result, nitrogen dioxide levels more than doubled in major cities from the levels seen during lockdown in a very short span of time.

While Europe was battling automobile pollution, forest fires were once again flaring in different countries, from Russia to Canada and the US. In Siberia, more than 13 million hectares of forest — an area bigger than Greece — has been destroyed, while Canada and California have also witnessed unprecedented blazes. Besides fighting forest fires, excessive heat in Canada last month also led to its last intact ice shelf breaking into two pieces, each bigger than Manhattan Island. Indeed, the summer temperatures registered in the tundra this year have been the highest ever, sending yet another clear signal that global warming continues to accelerate.

Normally, so many climate-related tragedies occurring within a few weeks of each other would have dominated the global media agenda for a long time and public discourse even longer, with increased pressure falling on governments and international organizations to undertake immediate measures to curb pollution. However, in most cases, the media, governments and international bodies have been preoccupied with the seemingly unstoppable coronavirus pandemic and, as a result, climate change is now on the sidelines.

This is a far cry from the beginning of the year, when global leaders were being warned by various environmental activists that humanity was already paying a heavy price for their inaction in terms of curbing pollution and carbon emissions. Politicians taking the easy way toward economic revival spells doom for the global environment and the battles to arrest climate change and reverse global warming. So far, this attitude seems to be true for most countries around the world where lockdowns have ended or been eased enough for some economic activity to resume. In such a situation, it is perhaps the moral responsibility of two of the world’s largest economic powers — the EU and US, which are also among the largest contributors to the global environmental catastrophe — to take a distinct stance on the path to recovery.

Nitrogen dioxide levels more than doubled in major cities from the levels seen during lockdown in a very short span of time.

Ranvir Nayar

The EU, from which there have been mixed and sometimes confusing signals, not only from member countries but even different parts of the same nations. French President Emmanuel Macron, for instance, began well by insisting that the bloc’s €750 billion ($894 billion) economic bailout package be used by beneficiary companies in a visibly green way. However, there has not been any institutional mechanism put in place to monitor this or penalize businesses that fail to achieve carbon emission reductions. The EU needs to act as one and put in place a strong mechanism for region-wide monitoring and reporting of the green footprint of the bailout package.

The elephant in the room is, of course, the US — the second-largest polluter in the world and the only country to have withdrawn from the Paris Agreement. However, things could radically alter within a matter of weeks if the current trends in the presidential election campaign hold until Nov. 3. If the US electorate decides to elect Joe Biden, the biggest succor in the battle to save the planet could indeed come from the US, as having anyone other than Trump in the White House would see a significant alteration, if not total reversal, of his environmental policies. 

  • Ranvir Nayar is the editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India that encompasses publishing, communication and consultation services.
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