It’s now or never for action on the climate

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While the Covid lockdown raised hopes that we could rein in global warming and cut pollution, it wasn’t enough, warns Martin Empson

This year ought to have been very different for the environmental movement. 2019 had seen an explosion of environmental activism. Global climate strikes had brought hundreds of thousands of young people onto the streets, inspiring a new generation to radical action over the environment. In the UK, Extinction Rebellion involved tens of thousands in protest occupations around its three demands and created a broad and extensive network of activists around the country.
There was every indication that the trend would continue into 2020. For activists in the UK the high point would have been a huge mobilisation around the United Nations climate talks (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2020. Plans included mass protests and a radical, alternate summit. Indications were that these would have involved thousands of people, likely the biggest mobilisation around such summits since the European Social Forums of the early 2000s. One small example of the potential for mobilisation was shown by the Campaign against Climate Change’s ‘climate summits’ which took place in the early part of this year. These attracted hundreds of activists in events in Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield and Glasgow, uniting climate strikers, XR activists, trade unionists, anti-racists and existing environmental campaigners.
However, just before the fourth summit in east London would have brought hundreds of activists together to plan mobilisations for Glasgow, the UK governmental finally put the country into lockdown against Covid-19. The immediate result was an end to climate activism on the streets. Almost immediately afterward, COP26 was postponed for 12 months and the movement in the UK at least has, essentially, remained online. During the initial stages of lockdown there was some speculation that the grounding of flights, drop in car use and the general economic downturn would lead at least to some respite for the environment. Air pollution in cities certainly did decline. Manchester, where I live, saw a dramatic improvement in air quality.
Nitrogen oxide was reduced by 70 percent in the city centre as car usage dropped dramatically. It is an urgent environmental issue. Manchester has over 150 roads where pollution is above legal limits and over 1200 people die a year as a result. So, the brief respite during lockdown was welcomed by many. It was not just in Britain that the air was cleaner. One study suggested there were as many as 11,000 deaths avoided in Europe because of a single month of reduced air pollution. But the picture is complicated. Lives saved by reduced air pollution in cities might be matched by those lost because of the economic downturn putting people out of work.
Such is the reality of the economic system that we live in. As the lockdown has eased, air pollution has quickly returned to ‘normal’ levels. Even the modest improvements we briefly experienced should be viewed cautiously. In China, even at the height of lockdown, concentrations of the smallest particulate matter, known as PM2.5, were still four times higher than the recommended World Health Organisation levels. These particles from exhausts, bonfires and industrial processes have, even in low-level exposure, been found to be closely linked to death and illness. But the fact that lockdown city air was more breathable, the roads quieter, birdsong more audible, did make people think. Perhaps some good will come of lockdown. Sadly, the reality is not so promising. Take the emissions of greenhouse gases.
These are different to the ones that cause air pollution in towns and cities. So the cleaner air we experienced during the initial stages of lockdown was not because of reductions in carbon emissions. But at least initially there was excitement about emissions going down. The Guardian headlined “dramatic” reductions, in their coverage of one study that showed a decrease of 17 percent of daily global emissions in April 2020. Even then the suggestion was that annual changes would be much less impressive: around four percent if Covid-19 restrictions were lifted in June. These liberal hopes were soon dashed. By June, the Guardian was concerned about “surprisingly rapid” rebounds in emissions, and in August they were reporting that the “Covid-19 lockdown will have ‘negligible’ impact on the climate crisis”. This ominous headline was the result of a study published in Nature Climate Change that looked at the way emissions decreased because of lockdown.
The scientists involved in the study behind the Guardian’s ominous August report used mobility data from people’s phones to measure the sudden decline in travel associated with the lockdown. They showed that this was responsible for the initial decline in emissions, which so many people noted in April of this year, but wasn’t enough to counter the warming effect of a reduction in sulphur dioxide from other parts of the economy. Sulphur dioxide actually cools the earth because it reflects sunlight back into space. As such, it counters prevailing global warming. The reduction in emissions of sulphur dioxide meant the world did not cool as much as might have been expected. In short, the impact of lockdown on emissions was not as much as would have been expected.
As the scientists concluded, “we estimate that the direct effect of the pandemic-driven response will be negligible, with a cooling of around 0.01±0.005C by 2030 compared to a baseline scenario that follows current national policies”. What is interesting is that the scientists linked this bad news directly to the question of post-lockdown economics. Their paper went on to “responses where the economic recovery to COVID-19 is driven by either a green stimulus package or an increase in fossil fuel use”. It is worth quoting their conclusion in full. “Our work shows that the global temperature signal due to the short-term dynamics of the pandemic is likely to be small. These results highlight that without underlying long-term system-wide decarbonization of economies, even massive shifts in behaviour only lead to modest reductions in the rate of warming.
However, economic investment choices for the recovery will strongly affect the warming trajectory by mid-century. Pursuing a green stimulus recovery out of the post-Covid-19 economic crisis can set the world on track for keeping the long-term temperature goal of the Paris Agreement within sight.” In other words, without a major challenge to the fossil fuel usage at the heart of the capitalist economic system there is little hope of making significant reductions in emissions. Indeed, the study is a further blow to those who believe that individual changes by large sections of the population, adding up to “massive shifts in behaviour”, can be part of tackling climate change.
Despite the pandemic stealing all the headlines, climate change has not gone away. In fact, largely unnoticed, there have been some frightening indications of a rapidly accelerating warming world in 2020. It seems an age ago, but the year started with horrific wildfires in Australia. These followed a year of fires on every continent in the world except for Antarctica. According to Global Forest Watch, in 2019 there were 4.5 million fires over a square kilometre, an increase of 400,000 on the previous year. Last year also saw the Greenland ice cap melting at an unbelievable rate: one million tonnes per minute of ice entering the oceans and raising sea levels.
However bad 2019 was, 2020 is likely to be worse. It is likely to be the hottest on record. August saw the highest temperature ever recorded on the earth’s surface: 54.4C. High temperatures have helped drive the sort of environmental disaster that would have been front-page news if the pandemic had not intervened. Increased rainfall and warmer temperatures in parts of Africa helped create conditions for huge locust swarms that devastated crops. In May ‘super-cyclone’ Amphan — the most powerful storm this century in the Bay of Bengal — crashed into Bangladesh and parts of India, killing 80 and leaving thousands of people homeless.
In an indication of how common these type of events are becoming, authorities in Bangladesh put in place plans that allowed the evacuation of two million people. The success of these plans avoided a larger death toll, but the destruction to farms, businesses and homes was immense. ‘Normal’ is a crisis So while politicians talk about a return to normal, we need to heed the words of journalist Naomi Klein when she warned us in April that going back to what we had before Covid-19 was not an option: “Normal was a crisis. Normal was Australia on fire. Normal was the Amazon on fire. Normal is a third mass leaching of the Great Barrier Reef. Normal is a crisis. Normal doesn’t allow you to have a safe future.” She pointed out that the Covid crisis was giving the biggest polluters the chance of a lifetime. Because at exactly the same time as many campaigners are heeding the words of climate scientists and saying we cannot go back to what was before, politicians around the world are doing the opposite.
The massive cash injections being pumped into economies to try to avoid collapse have been directed at those corporations at biggest risk, and these are the very ones driving the climate crisis. In the US at least $50 million intended for small businesses ended up in the hands of oil, gas and coal companies. As oil prices collapsed, Trump promised hundreds of millions of dollars more for fossil fuel industries. By July, something like $3 billion had gone to over 5000 fossil fuel companies in “Covid aid”. The $2 trillion bailout included $61 billion for airlines. In contrast, renewable energy firms did not get the tax relief they asked for in the package. The pattern of big polluters being handed bailout cash is not restricted to the US.
The Transport and Environment research website listed €34.4 billion being given to airlines across Europe. China sought to offset the economic impact of Covid-19 in part by greenlighting five new coal plants in March. The country is now building new coal plants at the fastest rate in five years. In Canada there have been bailouts for tar sands companies, in South Korea for coal companies, in Europe the central bank pumped €7 billion into fossil fuel companies. There are dozens of other examples. Across the world, governments have responded to Covid-19 and the threat of economic crisis by pouring cash into the hands of the biggest polluters, removing restrictions to their expansion and encouraging further extraction of oil, gas and coal. The dominant alternative is to call for some form of green recovery plan.
These plans variously call for the pumping of cash into sustainable industries, protection and creation of jumps in sectors such as renewables, and opposition to bailout cash going to the polluters. It is important to note that not all of these recovery plans come from radicals, environmentalists or campaigners. The Carbon Brief website has tracked dozens of international proposals, some of which have been accepted. Readers will rightly be sceptical about some of them. One comes from Boris Johnson who told us in May that “we owe it to future generations to build back better”. Yet the British government’s plan to spend £3 billion on improving energy efficiency is dwarfed by the vast amounts of money it has thrown at airlines and carmakers.
Mainstream green recovery strategies fail to challenge the status quo, including, for instance, money for natural capital schemes that involve the pricing of nature as part of a neoliberal integration of nature into the economy. What is needed is a challenge to the fossil fuel priorities of the capitalist system. A green recovery is incompatible with bailouts for the oil, gas and coal multinationals. A sustainable economy won’t come from supporting airlines and car manufacturers. Of course, socialists and environmentalists must defend jobs, otherwise we won’t win workers to the fight for a sustainable future. But we need to argue for an immediate ‘just transition’: the thousands of workers losing their jobs must be redeployed, retrained and supported in new jobs in sectors of the economy that reduce emissions. It was precisely this vision that was behind the Campaign against Climate Change’s One Million Climate Jobs plan.
In recent years, the idea of a Green New Deal (GND) has gained ground. There are many different versions of this. In the US you can contrast the more radical version belonging to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with the less radical vision of Joe Biden. However, as Naomi Klein points out in her recent book On Fire, a GND will only be successful in moving us towards a sustainable economy insofar as it challenges the realities of fossil fuel capitalism. That means a GND needs to attack the fossil fuel corporations, create jobs for the unemployed and those who risk losing their employment because of the transition to a green economy. But, as Klein argues, if activists are to successfully win large numbers of people to a GND, other inequalities must be addressed, such as those caused by the legacy of colonialism and contemporary imperialism, the reality of racism, oppression and poverty.
Unfortunately, the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn in the British general election at the end of 2019 and the failure of Bernie Sanders to become the Democratic candidate for the US elections has meant that a GND in either of these countries seems a long way off. In the face of truly alarming environmental news, the movement cannot sit back and hope we will elect a government that will implement a GND at some indeterminate point in the future. We have to campaign to shape the response now. Capitalism drives environmental crisis, and the solutions it offers to economic crisis make the situation worse. The Covid-19 pandemic has also shown that there is a close link between the capitalist economy and the development of disease.
The origins of coronavirus lie in the way that agribusiness is systematically creating the conditions for the regular outbreak of disease. Massive deforestation, combined with the concentration of huge numbers of animals in single areas allows for the jump of disease from small reservoirs in wild animals to farmed animals and possibly onto humans. Since the domestication of animals 20,000 years ago, humans have risked disease jumping between species, but industrial agriculture causes regular pandemics.
In agriculture, as with every other area of the economy, the needs of people’s lives and the planet’s ecosystems come after the central need to maximise profits. But there is hope. During the pandemic the Black Lives Matter movement and the students who protested over exam downgrading have shown that there is both a willingness to fight and that protests can win. In 2019 one of the most popular slogans on environmental protests was ‘System Change Not Climate Change’. We need to make that a reality as we fight for our place on a planet that is being devastated by a profit-driven capitalist logic of disease and environmental crisis.