Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

4 Jun 2020

COVID-19 and a green shift

Posted by Michael Keating

The COVID-19 pandemic has given the world’s economy a giant shock. It grounded most of the world’s nearly 30,000 passenger and transport aircraft and putting some airlines out of business. Some 300 cruise ships, are either tied up or floating at sea waiting for permission to dock. Hundreds of millions of cars sit in driveways, parking lots or unsold on dealers’ lots. Factories have shut down and shopping centres closed. The result has been a giant cut in air pollution. The air in cities is cleaner than at any time in living memory.

But it is not a sustainable change. Billions of us have had our lives disrupted, and millions are in desperate straits. Unemployment is spiking to levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The World Food Programme says the lives and livelihoods of 265 million people in low and middle-income countries will be under severe threat unless swift action is taken to tackle the pandemic, up from a current 135 million.

The big question is what next? If we get a vaccine, which will probably not happen for many months, we will be able to go back to our former work and lifestyles. If the vaccine is delayed, then we will continue a gradual deconfinement with risks of more infections and possible closings. But, do we want to go back to old, unsustainable “normal?”

In May, some 350 organizations representing more than 40 million health care workers issued an open letter to G20 world leaders calling for a healthy recovery from COVID-19. They asked for “investments in pandemic preparedness, public health and environmental stewardship,” including renewable energy. They said air pollution already causes 7 million premature deaths a year in the world, and weakens people’s ability to fight off illness. “A truly healthy recovery will not allow pollution to continue to cloud the air we breathe and the water we drink. It will not permit unabated climate change and deforestation, potentially unleashing new health threats upon vulnerable populations.” For a number of years health experts have pointed out that racial minorities and the poor suffer most from air pollution, climate change and diseases, including COVID-19. There have been calls for what amounts to a more sustainable recovery that includes cuts in pollution and an approach to help people escape discrimination, poverty and the resulting ill health.

Many governments had already committed to a green shift, especially given their promises to fight climate change. The pandemic is seen as a possible turning point for a green rebuilding of economies around the world. In late May, the European Commission proposed a European Green Deal that would include billions of Euros a year to create a more circular economy that reduces waste, saying it has the potential to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs for Europeans and reduce foreign dependency. The green deal includes a Farm to Fork strategy to help the region’s farmers provide people with good and affordable food, and a Just Transition Strategy to help workers acquire new skills. The proposal calls for greater energy efficiency and green heating, renewable energy, clean cars, zero-emissions trains and the production of clean hydrogen fuel.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given the world’s economy a giant shock. It grounded most of the world’s nearly 30,000 passenger and transport aircraft and putting some airlines out of business. Some 300 cruise ships, are either tied up or floating at sea waiting for permission to dock. Hundreds of millions of cars sit in driveways, parking lots or unsold on dealers’ lots. Factories have shut down and shopping centres closed. The result has been a giant cut in air pollution. The air in cities is cleaner than at any time in living memory.

But it is not a sustainable change. Billions of us have had our lives disrupted, and millions are in desperate straits. Unemployment is spiking to levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The World Food Programme says the lives and livelihoods of 265 million people in low and middle-income countries will be under severe threat unless swift action is taken to tackle the pandemic, up from a current 135 million.

The big question is what next? If we get a vaccine, which will probably not happen for many months, we will be able to go back to our former work and lifestyles. If the vaccine is delayed, then we will continue a gradual deconfinement with risks of more infections and possible closings. But, do we want to go back to old, unsustainable “normal?”

In May, some 350 organizations representing more than 40 million health care workers issued an open letter to G20 world leaders calling for a healthy recovery from COVID-19. They asked for “investments in pandemic preparedness, public health and environmental stewardship,” including renewable energy. They said air pollution already causes 7 million premature deaths a year in the world, and weakens people’s ability to fight off illness. “A truly healthy recovery will not allow pollution to continue to cloud the air we breathe and the water we drink. It will not permit unabated climate change and deforestation, potentially unleashing new health threats upon vulnerable populations.” For a number of years health experts have pointed out that racial minorities and the poor suffer most from air pollution, climate change and diseases, including COVID-19. There have been calls for what amounts to a more sustainable recovery that includes cuts in pollution and an approach to help people escape discrimination, poverty and the resulting ill health.

Many governments had already committed to a green shift, especially given their promises to fight climate change. The pandemic is seen as a possible turning point for a green rebuilding of economies around the world. In late May, the European Commission proposed a European Green Deal that would include billions of Euros a year to create a more circular economy that reduces waste, saying it has the potential to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs for Europeans and reduce foreign dependency. The green deal includes a Farm to Fork strategy to help the region’s farmers provide people with good and affordable food, and a Just Transition Strategy to help workers acquire new skills. The proposal calls for greater energy efficiency and green heating, renewable energy, clean cars, zero-emissions trains and the production of clean hydrogen fuel.

Business is playing an ever more important role in a green shift. It is companies that produce wind turbines, solar panels, electric cars, organic food, green buildings and a huge array of products and services that can make the world better than it was. Last month, 155 companies with a combined market capitalization of over US$ 2.4 trillion and representing over five million employees signed a statement urging governments around the world to align their COVID-19 economic aid and recovery efforts with the latest climate science. The corporate chiefs called  on governments “to reimagine a better future grounded in bold climate action.” They said, “As we are setting ambitious corporate emission reduction targets through the Science Based Targets initiative and its Business Ambition for 1.5°C campaign, we remain committed to do our part to achieve a resilient, zero carbon economy. We are now urging governments to prioritize a faster and fairer transition from a grey to a green economy.”

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