Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

23 May 2021

A lesson from COVID-19 for climate change

Posted by Michael Keating

We can look on the experience of dealing with COVID-19 as a training ground for the upheavals coming with climate change. The speed with which we reacted to the new virus showed we are amazingly adaptable. In a few weeks people stopped travelling, learned to wear masks and pulled back from human contact. Scientists collaborated to produce vaccines in months not years. One country after another is bringing the infection rate down.

When it comes to heading off the worst of climate change the challenges will be different, much more complicated and permanent. We need to create a new normal. We cannot keep releasing massive of greenhouse gases if we want to have a habitable world. We need to start immediately replacing most of the energy systems that power the modern world. This includes everything from gasoline-powered lawn mowers to cars and trucks to the giant ships and planes that carry us and our goods around the world run – all burning fossil fuels.

This is “perhaps the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced,” says Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency [IEA], a global centre of expertise on energy. There are signs of progress. Car makers are making the switch to electric motors faster than anyone thought possible just a few years ago. More than a dozen countries have announced bans on fossil fueled vehicles over the next couple of decades. Investments in renewable energy generation are growing at a record place. They need to. Most of the world’s vast array of fossil-fueled power plants need to be phased out over the next few decades. Ditto for the huge number of heating systems in homes, offices, shops and hospitals that all burn oil or natural gas. These are staggering challenges. We have never had to abandon such a huge number of technologies that worked very well because they are destroying our environment.

The IEA says we have many of the technologies to start the move to net zero emissions by 2050, but we need other technologies that are currently at the demonstration or prototype phase. Developing vaccines for COVID-19 in less than a year shows we can move with incredible speed and ingenuity. Cutting our emissions of greenhouse gases will require the same type of global cooperation and innovation and huge investments. We will need ingenuity, adaptability and flexibility to end our carbon-intensive lifestyle. Moving quickly pays off. As we saw with COVID-19 infection rates, those governments that imposed strict controls on movement and stuck with them ended up with far fewer infections and were able to open up earlier.

Making an unprecedented change in our energy supply will require courageous leadership from governments. They need to start limiting then banning new investments in fossil fuels and their use.  It will especially hard for governments of fossil fuel producing countries, such as Canada. While there will be many new jobs in a renewable energy economy there will be losers, especially among people who work in the fossil fuel sector. The transition will be hard, and it will be essential for governments to provide support for those dislocated by the changes just as they did when businesses were closed by COVID-19 restrictions.

It will be important for leaders to focus on the benefits of change rather than the costs of the transition. Stopping the burning of fossil fuels will eliminate a major source of air pollution that causes health problems and shortens lives. Electric vehicles are simpler and cheaper to maintain. Government directives are not enough on their own. We need but a profound culture change. This is not a new idea. In 1973 the Science Council of Canada called for a shift to a “conserver society.” It said, “Canadians, as individuals, and their governments, institutions and industries, (must) begin the transition from a consumer society preoccupied with resource exploitation to a conserver society engaged in more constructive endeavours.”

Comments are closed.