Remedy for revival

Dawdling on disaster: Climate change, economy intertwined as planet plots recovery from COVID-19 pandemic

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/05/2020 (942 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The video opens with a flat, calm voice thanking all humankind for being such wonderful hosts. Eerie shots of faces, cityscapes, and lush forests pan across the screen.

It quickly becomes apparent the disembodied voice is meant to belong to the COVID-19 virus.

“We viruses are kept in check by healthy environments, with diverse and abundant wildlife,” the personified coronavirus says.

Michael Probst / The Associated Press files UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres: ‘We have a rare and short window of opportunity to rebuild our world for the better’

The video has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times since its release on Earth Day, and it was created by the international environmental charity, Global Wildlife Conservation. The video asks viewers to reflect on the destruction of the planet to fulfil humanity’s needs, even though that destruction brings about higher risks for humanity itself.

“As the Earth stops to take a collective, deep breath, you have an opportunity to reimagine and redefine a new future. So tell me, what future do you choose?” the voice asks.

It’s been several weeks since the COVID-19 pandemic forced global action to slow the spread of the virus. Enormous social and cultural changes took root overnight. Consequently, people have begun reflecting on the connections between this threat, and other global challenges such as climate change, and environmental destruction at the hand of humans. It’s forced societies to contemplate what kind of life is sustainable as we come to terms with our own fragility as a species — and our own personal mortality.

For Winnipeg’s former mayor Glen Murray, it’s a process he recognizes and has already endured once in his life. Living as a young, gay man in the 1980s during the AIDS epidemic, he lost 43 friends, including his partner with whom he thought he’d spend the rest of his life.

“It totally changed my attitude about life. I became brutally aware of my own mortality, and I decided to live my own life differently,” Murray told the Free Press. This meant running for elected office, both in Winnipeg and later as a Liberal provincial politician in southern Ontario. But for the past few years, Murray has turned his attention to focus entirely on climate change. Days after this interview was conducted, Murray announced he is throwing his name in the ring to be the next leader of the federal Green Party of Canada.

Murray said in the case of the AIDS epidemic, the rest of society made it an issue for the LGBTTQ+ community to deal with alone, but this time around, there is more of a culture of “we’re all in this together.”

But that could well mean that the reevaluation of what’s important and how we live as a society could be more widespread.

“It’s interesting because everything we’re having to do to survive right now is disconnecting us from the economy, and much of what we’re facing is because of the old economy, our culture and the way we were living. And now we’re at a crossroads,” Murray said.

INVESTING IN the FUTURE

The question that arises is whether or not leaders will take the opportunity veiled in the devastation of the pandemic to make systemic changes to the world we live in to better address the imminent threat climate change poses. There has been some solace found in the fact that greenhouse gas emissions have temporarily been lowered, but that’s a far cry from a long-term game plan.

“We don’t really know which direction it’s going to go. In previous recessions we’ve seen that emissions tend to bounce back pretty quickly, and sometimes even increase (faster) than they were before the recession,” said Rachel Samson, the clean growth research director for the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices.

Carbon Brief, a U.K.-based online publication, posted an analysis that estimates that the coronavirus is on track to lower greenhouse gas emissions by more than we’ve seen in any other year since the Industrial Revolution — but that is still only a 5.5 per cent drop. To put that in context, in order to meet the goal of limiting climate change to 1.5 C of warming, the world would have to lower emissions by roughly 7.6 per cent per year, every year this decade.

“To put it another way, atmospheric carbon levels are expected to increase again this year,” the analysis posted by deputy editor Simon Evans reads.

But that’s not to say that in order to achieve emissions reduction goals, the economy needs to be shrunk even more, Samson said. For far too long a false dichotomy has been drawn between economic well-being and climate action, when she fundamentally believes that prioritizing both is possible.

The recovery effort will likely play out in two possible ways, Samson says. The pandemic has likely strengthened people’s reliance and confidence in science and expert opinion, and it could lead to more public support of advancing climate action with government funds. Or, she says, there could be a turn towards tightening spending which might eliminate existing climate change initiatives, or future ones.

“Climate change has been viewed as this long-term issue that we’ll have to worry about later, and I think the pandemic was viewed that way too. There were a lot of experts in that field who had been saying that a pandemic was coming, for decades. The response to it was, ‘Oh, we’ll put that off.’ And that’s been the attitude with climate change as well,” Samson said.

On April 24, Canada’s Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan took part in a roundtable hosted by the Government of Denmark and the International Energy Agency (IEA) which focused on how ministers from more than a dozen countries, as well as various global agencies, could prioritize clean energy growth in their recovery plans.

“In the face of human tragedy and the plethora of consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have also been handed an opportunity to rebuild society in a manner that makes it more resilient to future crises,” said Dan Jørgensen, Denmark’s minister for climate, energy and utilities.

There is evidence a global energy transition is already in progress — whether it is coming fast enough is the question. Global renewable energy capacity grew by 107 per cent between 2010 and 2019, according to data from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). In 2018, renewables accounted for 26 per cent of global electricity generation, according to the latest statistics supplied by the IEA.

Meanwhile, oil and gas companies are slicing jobs as they face the COVID-19 crisis as well as the price slump brought on by the feud between Saudi Arabia and Russia. The prices for oil futures turned negative in the United States for the first time in history and in Canadian banks have shifted their lending standards to try and keep oil and gas companies from going belly-up.

These changing dynamics will shift the investment world as we know it, predicts Wayne Wachell, CEO and chief investment officer of Vancouver-based Genus Capital Management. Genus Capital specializes in investment funds that are free of fossil fuel investments, as well as other funds that observe other environmental, social and governance (ESG) investment strategies.

Wachell says watching Canadian oil and gas companies be virtually relegated to penny stocks has some investors worried about the companies’ long-term viability and the increasing risk of stranded assets. But other clients are making the connection between the threat the pandemic poses and climate change, and they’re aligning their portfolios with their values.

“This is a big event. It’s going to have social, cultural, all kinds of impacts from a long-term perspective,” Wachell said.

Even on a smaller scale within his own firm, he says the pandemic will cause him to look at future business decisions differently. He says there’s little reason to invest in more office space, for example, when the advantages of having people work from home have now been proven. The acceptance of video calls as a means of doing business will mean less travel. A lot of these changes will mean more investment in technology, but likely less in other conventional sources of wealth, he says.

Not everyone is on board with this potential shift in priorities. Last week Alberta’s premier, Jason Kenney, tried to discredit the idea of energy transition, calling it an agenda of the “green left that has been trying to landlock Alberta energy” and he said, “When you talk about a Green New Deal, listen, our focus is on getting people back to work in Alberta. Not pie-in-the-sky ideological schemes.”

For Canada, with oil being the country’s biggest export commodity, it is a difficult policy line to walk.

“The federal government has been trying to find that balance. We don’t want to lose the jobs in Alberta, and they want to make sure that companies survive through this difficult period, but at the same time you don’t want to be supporting things that aren’t consistent with long-term economic interest,” Samson said.

FILE - In this Aug. 16, 2019, file photo, a woman stands next to an antenna at an NYU base camp at the Helheim glacier in Greenland. Summer 2019 is hitting the island hard with record-shattering heat and extreme melt. Scientists estimate that by the end of the summer, about 440 billion tons of ice, maybe more, will have melted or calved off Greenland's giant ice sheet. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Tuesday at a two-day international meeting on climate change, that the coronavirus pandemic has exposed how fragile societies are, but that if governments work together on common challenges, including global warming, it can be an opportunity to 'rebuild our world for the better.' (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

The investment the federal government made in cleaning up orphan oil and gas wells demonstrates the government’s commitment to walking that line, she says.

Outside of investment in clean energy projects and orphan well cleanup, Samson said there are other proposed stimulus projects she’s seen, including one that estimates hundreds of thousands of jobs could be created through investment in building retrofits across the country so that buildings conform with the energy conservation standards needed to meet emissions-reduction goals.

The possibilities are endless.

Legacies of a crisis

The most devastating recessions in modern history have precipitated some of the most revolutionary economic plans ever seen. The Great Depression saw the creation of the New Deal under U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Cash flowed into the economy both by means of social programs and the creation of new government agencies, as well as new restrictions placed on the banking industry. The changes permanently expanded the size and scope of American government.

Europe dug its way out of the ashes of the Second World War, thanks in large part to the Marshall Plan, U.S.-sponsored recovery funding targeted at rebuilding more than a dozen European countries to help stabilize the continent post-war.

The legacy of this economic crisis is still being written.

Murray says in Winnipeg, he hopes lessons can be learned from the recovery efforts that came after the 2008 financial crisis, where he says projects were greenlit by the federal government that never deserved to be built.

When the mentality is just to get shovels in the ground, Murray said, “All of the dog’s breakfasts of bad ideas, and expensive ideas get built” because the federal government is footing the bill. He hopes the city takes the opportunity to put forward infrastructure projects that would gear the city and the province toward mitigating emissions.

“The solution is a fork in the road,” Murray said. “This is going to be a massive government intervention. So what are we going to do? Are we going to increase our commitment to conventional transportation, internal combustion engines and fossil fuels? Or are we going to electrify our economy now, and retrofit our buildings?”

From that 2008 legacy, we can also derive some positive lessons, too, Samson said. After all, in the U.S. the groundwork was laid in that recovery for the emergence of the electric vehicle industry with cash flowing into vehicle creation, battery development and lithium extraction methods.

In 2010, Tesla was among the young companies to qualify for a loan from the U.S. Department of Energy. Three years later, the company had paid the US$465 million back in full.

“These investments helped provide jobs in the U.S. at a difficult time,” Samson said, “And it planted the seeds for the industry we see today.”

Electric vehicles still only account for two per cent of global car sales, but the global stock of EVs grew by 63 per cent in 2018, according to the IEA. More than 5 million EVs were on the world’s roadways by the end of 2018, up from a negligible total at the turn of the decade.

Monday, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication released new public opinion polling that demonstrated public support for these kinds of stimulus programs may be in good supply, at least in the United States. They found that two-thirds of respondents supported public stimulus going to renewable energy companies, while fewer than half of people supported fossil fuel bailouts. Three-quarters of respondents said they’d prefer to see government spending go towards renewable energy companies over fossil fuel companies.

Last week, an Ipsos Mori poll that surveyed people across 14 G-20 countries showed that a majority in every country were onside with an economic recovery plan that prioritized climate change.

“The whole climate change crisis is a cultural crisis. It stems from our culture, our beliefs, what we perceive our role is within nature,” Murray said.

On top of a green financial legacy, he hopes the pandemic forces a re-evaluation of those cultural norms, perhaps drawing on Indigenous cultures, he suggests, where decisions are considered for the impacts that will be felt by their grandchildren’s grandchildren.

“A lot of what we believe about ourselves, believe about other creatures on the planet, and what we value,” Murray said. “All of those things start to come into question with this.”

It’s a conversation that isn’t just happening in Winnipeg, but globally. German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged other foreign leaders on Wednesday to continue to prioritize climate change as they plotted their courses out of recession.

Antonio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, echoed her plea: “These are dark days, but they are not without hope. We have a rare and short window of opportunity to rebuild our world for the better.”

Dawdling on disaster will be an ongoing series looking at how humans are facing the climate crisis.

sarah.lawrynuik@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @SarahLawrynuik

History

Updated on Saturday, May 2, 2020 6:08 PM CDT: Fixes byline.

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