The post-pandemic future will be green or there won’t be a future

The world has changed with Covid-19. We should seize the opportunity. As much as we dream of returning to a lost normality, there’s no turning back. Español Português

democracia Abierta
5 June 2020, 12.01am
Environmental protester wearing a gas mask while holding a sign during a climate change protest in November 2019.
Andres Pantoja / SOPA Images/Sipa USA/PA Images

With the major countries of Europe, which suffered the tragic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, beginning to control the spread of the virus and to slowly abandon quarantine and lockdown, the shape of the post Covid-19 world is beginning to appear on the horizon.

Meanwhile, according to the WHO on 22nd May, South America is the new epicentre of the pandemic. In Brazil, the virus appears to be spreading out of control, with more than half a million confirmed infections and daily death figures higher than the worst days in Spain and Italy (on Wednesday June 3rd, 1,349 deaths were reported from the previous day).

At the same time, in many US states, where over 100,000 people have died, the peak infection has not yet been reached, although the pressure to reopen the economy has meant that precautions have been abandoned. The massive protests following the assassination of George Floyd across the country increase the risk of outbreaks everywhere.

Although it is not yet clear how the pandemic will unfold, with potential outbreaks expected in the autumn, it is already clear that these last three months will leave their mark on the decade, if not the remainder of the 21st century. Covid-19 caught the world by surprise, at a time of economic recovery, but still suffering from some of the negative consequences of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, including increases in already unsustainable inequality.

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Economic recovery, even before it was abruptly interrupted, took place alongside a slowdown of world trade, which, Trump's arrival at the White House and his aggressively protectionist policies and his trade war with China only made it worse.

The last decade has also seen the decline of global governance and multilateralism. We have witnessed the withdrawal of American leadership. The European Union has not been able to compensate in leadership terms, having entered its own existential crisis. It was able to prevent the collapse of the Europ but not Brexit. Not could it establish a spirit of collaboration with Russ, which is now only interested in destabilization in order to strengthen its position.

China is more interested in taking advantage of the power vacuum to place its own pawns, especially its economic ones, on the world chessboard than in replacing the global system inherited from the Second World War and the Cold War with new geopolitics of the common good. However, with the American abandonment of multilateralism (its withdrawal from the WHO is only the latest episode), Chinese diplomacy has seen the opportunity to position itself increasingly in the system of international governance.

But if globalisation is receding, global problems aren't, as we have seen with the pandemic in recent months, and with the climate crisis, for some time now

Globalisation is clearly in retreat in the economy, finance, trade and even migration, with borders closed, planes on the ground and ships in dock. But if globalisation is receding, global problems aren't, as we have seen with the pandemic in recent months, and with the climate crisis, for some time now. Neither health nor climate crises stop at borders, and while the health crisis can be overcome with scientific progress and the eventual universal provision of treatment and vaccine, it will be difficult to overcome the climate crisis without radical collective and global measures. We identified the problem and its possible solutions at least five decades ago, but we have not been able to agree on how to implement them.

With shameful exceptions of some governments such as Jair Bolsonaro's or Daniel Ortega's, the late response by the UK or the erratic action of the US, what the reaction to the pandemic has shown is that, in the face of a global crisis, joint action is necessary and works.

The Covid-19 pandemic will eventually subside, but the climate crisis is here to stay. This fact should force the international community to agree on the urgency of implementing measures such as a global Green New Deal. Covid-19 has taught us that we are one species, vulnerable to a new generation virus, and to pandemics which are likely to multiply in the coming decades and for which we will have to be prepared.

But we have learned that we belong to a particularly fragile species in the face of a respiratory virus. This should make us reflect that we are also tremendously vulnerable to another global problem, perhaps slower in its evolution but potentially even more destructive: the climate crisis.

With the pandemic we have seen how our species, even when dominated by the individualistic and predatory spirit of neoliberal capitalism, is also a collaborative and supportive species. A combination of fear of death, confidence that science must guide governments, and faith in the responsibility of individuals in the face of possibility of spreading the virus, has made us feel like active members of our social environments, from the most immediate in the family and the neighbourhood, to the most distant in global society.

We need to realise that the first tsunami was the pandemic, the second is the economic crash that follows and the third is the climate catastrophe, and that we must act now, globally

The evidence of the fragility of our economies based on the speed of consumption, which then deepens inequality, should lead to an in-depth reflection on what we want for the post-Covid-19 society.

We need to realise that the first tsunami was the pandemic, the second is the economic crash that follows and the third is the climate catastrophe, and that we must act now, globally. We have seen how governments have abandoned fiscal orthodoxy, once seen as sacred to the banking and financial system which depends on debt, and how they have been prepared to inject huge sums of money into the economy to avoid total disaster; now is the time to introduce climate conditions to these billion-dollar investments. If the 2008-2009 financial crisis was solved by rescuing the banks and with very low climate conditionality for companies to force them to introduce measures to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, the way out of this new crisis will have to be much greener, or the crisis will never end.

Still, for the moment, we should not be too optimistic. It is true that quarantine have brought clear skies, a regeneration of nature and an awareness that one of the solutions to the collapse of transport and pollution in the major cities is remote working (it is estimated that, globally, workers waste an average of 2 hours a day in journeys to their jobs). The solution, however, is not just to increase the number of cycle paths, as New York, Paris, Bogota and Barcelona are doing, but also to increase the number of pedestrianised city centres and to promote electric vehicles. We know that the emissions generated by urban transport, while important, are not so significant in the total calculation of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions. There is commercial aviation, for example, or the generation of electric energy based on fossil fuels.

But the big corporations, which are also the big polluters, are taking advantage of the millions of dollars available for economic revival, and are taking the lion's share without committing to change. Germany has rushed to rescue Lufthansa with 9 billion euros, and the Chinese government has approved the construction of coal-fired power plants to accelerate the country’s recovery. Two weeks ago, the Colombian House of Representatives overturned a bill limiting oil industry extractions in the Amazon, and Ricardo Salles, Brazil's environment minister, urged the Council of Ministers to approve laws relaxing environmental protection regulations, taking advantage of the media distraction with Covid-19.

Throughout Latin America, the smokescreen raised by the pandemic and the deadlock created by quarantine measures have opened up spaces of unchecked impunity for the progress of rainforest deforestation, illegal mining, or the assassination of social and environmental leaders.

The outlook is not encouraging. But just as we have been able to flatten the curve of the pandemic, we should be able to flatten the global warming curve.

A recent editorial in The Economist, hardly a green-left wing publication, was headlined as follows: "Seize the moment: the Covid-19 crisis reveals how hard it will be to contain climate change, but it creates a unique opportunity to do so". This crisis has shown how fragile the foundations of global prosperity are, and how urgent it is to rethink the whole system and change the paradigm. Even an influential editorial in the Financial Times at the beginning of the pandemic called for an urgent change of course towards a much greener economy with much more social focus, if we are to avoid a climate catastrophe that could wipe out the human species.

It seems that environmental consciousness has moved away from being a niche corner of political discussion to finally becoming central. Now the large extractive corporations need to take note, starting with the oil companies, as well as the military industry and the financial economy.

The world seems to have changed with the Covid-19. Let's seize the opportunity. As much as we dream of returning to lost normality, there's no turning back now.

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