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The global challenge facing our mankind of ending our romance with fossil fuels has certainly been made more painful, urgent and conflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Can we still turn back the clock or was the pandemic just a taster of what’s to come?
Think of our dependence on fossil fuels as having to quit chain-smoking -cold turkey- after on average smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Every time you smoke you cause harm to the cells in your lungs. Whenever you stop smoking – whether just to take a break or overnight to sleep, your body gets to work healing those cells and undoing the damage – at least until you start smoking again. After thirty or forty years of this, your body can no longer deal with the overwhelming damage and typically, gets a respiratory disease that is very difficult, if not impossible to cure. Similarly, to our smoker lungs, our atmosphere cannot process all the carbon dioxide in the air anymore and has started to trap in heat and warm the planet.
COVID-19 restrictions may have temporarily curbed global warming effects, halting international travel and economic activity for months on end. To some it was as if the smoker within us got a temporary nicotine patch allowing us to get off our fossil fuel cravings and start enjoying all the clean-air perks of life as a non-smoker.
The big question is whether we can capitalise on this moment and give up our long-lasting addiction for good. All whilst the scientific world is saying that we have only 11 years left before our disease is terminal.
Over the past few months the idea of a green economic recovery from COVID-19 to prevent a dangerous rebound in above pre-pandemic levels of CO2 emissions has been gathering more and more steam. Even though so far, we have been much better at giving sound advice rather than showcasing the capacity to take it on ourselves.
Pre-pandemic, global climate change movements such as Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future were asking for the global "degrowth" of our economies- immediately- not in 2050. A collective push was emerging for the diversion of finance from consumption to building low-carbon economies, advocating to prioritise the health of the environment over the health of a global economy underpinned by principles of capitalism and globalisation.
... is a known expert in the fields of green infrastructure solutions and digital transformation and has been working over 10 years at international financial organizations such as the World Bank United Nations and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (ERBD). Her work, with a postgraduate degree from Oxford University and Cambridge University, has received several awards in recent years such as the Aviva Women of the Future Award. She is also a Forbes "30 under 30"-Listmaker.
A brave new world had been sketched out for us. One driven by zero carbon principles wherein every one of us was asked to make personal sacrifices to bring our carbon footprint down.
The mantra was: ‘If you care about the environment you should stop most international flights, buy sustainable green fashion, curb meat consumption, give up your SUV and offset your remaining carbon footprint with carbon credits.
To some, pre-COVID, this collective behavioural change was once a long-shot and more of a hippy dream rather than rooted in reality. The transition towards a low-carbon economy entails a radical shift in the carbon intensity of our global gross domestic product (GDP). This economic shift was one many governments were unwilling to fully embark on pre COVID-19.
As to keep global temperature rise at safe levels, the carbon intensity of the global economy would need to fall at least 10times faster than current levels. The inconvenient truth remained that moving from fossil-fuel based growth to green growth would take much more time than we had. The pre-existing infrastructure we intend to use over the next decades had largely been built and clean-energy investments continued to lag behind.
Now to many the pandemic has shown that a new way of living, working and travelling- more climate friendly- may not be as much of a long-shot as we once thought. As it turns out, we don’t even need to start from scratch when developing green recovery packages.
With the majority of countries already committed to cutting emissions under the UNFCC Paris Agreement, many have outlined projects in climate change adaptation roadmaps and the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of the Paris Agreement. This pre-existing framework can allow nations to take account of the economic benefits of renewable energy projects, the deployment of an electric vehicle ecosystem and a low carbon built environment. At the same time, the fossil-fuel based jobs of our previous generation are becoming more insecure and outdated, requiring a new skill set fit for a zero-carbon economy and ultimately to be integrated in every bank’s, every company’s, every pension fund’s transition plan to net zero emissions. Feeding such targets back into governmental green stimulus packages would enable sustainable growth and job creation at a large scale.
Front runner nations such as France and the UK have started converting net zero GHG emissions targets by 2050 into law while others continue to withstand taking drastic climate action, risking the global recovery to lock us into substantially higher carbon emitting trajectories.
If we follow down this bleak path it would lead us to an unseen climate catastrophe and our once recovering smoker would sooner or later land in the figurative Intensive Care Unit, linked up to a ventilator, next to a recovering COVID-19 patient. Oh, the irony.
Author: Tara Shirvani
Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.