Financing climate ambition in the context of COVID-19

 

Book Lord Nicholas Stern as a Keynote Speaker | Thinking Heads

Lord Stern has been Chair of the Grantham Research Institute since it was founded in 2008.

At the outset we have to recognise two fundamental elements of the context of COVID-19: the first is that we risk a global depression. The second crucial element must be a recognition of the dangers, fragility and inequities of the old economy.

We have seen unprecedented falls in output, battered confidence and severe liquidity issues. This is a profoundly Keynesian challenge. Any lack of direction, any lack of strategy, any talk of austerity, could depress the confidence, employment, consumption, investment and innovation that we sorely need.

This crisis is truly global. It is particularly severe for emerging markets and developing countries, with commodity prices falling 20 per cent and upwards, remittances showing their sharpest decline since records began, and the biggest capital flight for decades. This is deeply serious across the world and the response has to tackle that collapse of confidence and it has to be on the scale that is necessary.

We must not go back to the old economy. We are seeing the dangers of the pandemic, and we have seen the dangers of the fragile social fabric across the world which arose in part from the slow recovery and inequities of the last decade. And towering over all that are the dangers of unmanaged climate change.

The COVID-19 crisis is deeply damaging, it is profoundly serious, and it is tragic but the climate consequences of neglect would be still more damaging, would last for decades or centuries and would, in large measure, be irreversible. We have to build back better. We must recognise that it would be deeply dangerous to return to the old economy.

Links between climate change and pandemics

Further, we have to recognise the profound links between climate change and the likelihood of pandemics. With climate change, birds are meeting in the Bering Strait that never met before, and new viruses emerge. As climate and biodiversity change, different kinds of interactions between wild animals, domestic animals and humans occur. Pollution, too, is closely linked with the pandemic. Pollution weakens lungs, makes people more vulnerable and, as we saw with SARS, can facilitate transmission of a virus over longer distances than direct contacts. We have to see all those dangers wound up together.

There is an intense urgency to tackle climate change; we have to recognise that this is an absolutely crucial decade. The investments of this decade will determine our future. Made badly, they could lock-in 3˚C or more of warming with likely destruction to livelihoods and lives across a transformed planet; we have not seen such temperatures for around 3 million years.

Policy for investment and finance

We are in the rescue phase in most countries now and we will be moving to recovery and then the drive to transformational growth. These remarks are focussed on the recovery, which must be designed to be sustainable if it is to take us to the drive to the transformational growth that can give us a much better path of development and growth and avoid the dangers of the old system.

We must have a clear strategy if we are to get the required investment. Europe’s Green Deal, the UK commitment to net-zero and its carbon budgets are examples, as is, it is hoped, China’s 14th Five-Year Plan (for 2021–2025). Such strategy will be crucial to confidence and the sense of direction that can drive sustainable investment and innovation. This strategy should embody policies to deliver carbon pricing, to abolish fuel subsidies, to phase out sales of the internal combustion engine, to electrify power, to promote resource efficiency, to redesign our cities, and to invest in our natural capital. It is not just the soundness of those policies that matter: it is also their clarity and credibility, which are crucial for the investment, employment and consumption that we need.

That strong sense of direction for the future generates the jobs of the future. The jobs of the past are insecure jobs. Stranded assets are stranded jobs. Security of employment, which we desperately need now after the profound dislocation of COVID-19, flows from that future vision and an understanding of those future jobs. The investment must be in human, physical and natural capital. The challenge is to invest for the future and we must see capital much more broadly than the narrowly physical.

The right kind of finance

Clear policies draw through sound investment. But we also need the right kind of finance, in the right place, on the right scale, at the right time. We live in a world which actually has plenty of savings. The problem is on the demand side, driving through the investment projects. Many countries can borrow at negative rates of interest. But many other countries have to borrow at very high rates of interest and many projects have to face very high costs of finance. We know that these markets are not managing risks well. That is our challenge; to overcome these market failures so that they manage risk better. This is part of improving outcomes for all, including future generations.

We have to move the whole financial system so that it recognises climate change, the imperative for action and the riskiness of high-carbon investments. Here, I salute the work of Mark Carney on risk reporting and risk management. The private sector is absolutely crucial, in terms of both investment and finance.

The International Financial Institutions (IFIs) and the Development Finance Institutions (DFIs) must be at centre stage in reducing and managing risk and moving finance to back the investments of the future at this particularly difficult time, when confidence is shaken. They are indeed making progress. The Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs) presented a valuable statement to the UN in September and Kristalina Georgieva has been offering outstanding leadership both during her time at the World Bank and now at the IMF.

The presence of an MDB or a DFI reduces policy risk. Governments are less likely to be difficult. Government-induced policy risk is a major deterrent to investment and the presence of an MDB reduces that. It can bring the right kind of instruments to manage, share and reduce risk; it can convene; and, through all these things, it can greatly enhance what the private sector can do. The MDBs and IFIs help build strategy and policy.

We have also seen that they have been crucial to the move towards achieving the US$100 billion p.a. in climate flows from rich to poor countries, which has been a central commitment in climate discussions for a decade. We must move to close the gap and to achieve the $100 billion; the role of the MDBs in that is critical. The magnitude of the task over this crucial decade and the strains of the COVID-19 crisis will imply that IFIs’ and DFIs’ ability to finance over the coming years will have to be substantially expanded. By far the cheapest and least risky way of enhancing low-cost finance is to invest in those institutions. Let me recognise the genius of Keynes again, in creating financial mechanisms that can produce so much finance at such low cost, if they are used well and if they are backed by shareholders.

Our chance to build back better

In terms of strategy, in terms of policy, in terms of investment, in terms of finance, we can see what to do. We can see the way to a much better world, with higher living standards, driving towards achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals; a world which is much safer and more resilient; a world which is much more attractive. Cities where we can move and breathe. Ecosystems that are robust and fruitful. It is up to us to deliver.

Allowing a great depression or attempting a ‘brown’ recovery would be profoundly dangerous. Either would be reckless; we risk having both. It will be strong leaders who will take us out of that, based on serious analyses and ideas. We have that kind of leadership, but we need it to be still stronger. We can and we must do much better. Let us take this opportunity to build back a better world. SOURCE

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From rescue to recovery, to transformation and growth: building a better world after COVID-19

 

Bailing out on the old normal

A shuttered shop in Vancouver, British Columbia. Image: Rod Raglin/Flickr

Image: Rod Raglin/Flickr

As Saskatchewan prepares to reopen its economy, along with several U.S. states, we shall start to see how broken the economy really is. Just as more than half of U.S. households live paycheque to paycheque — hence the miles-long car line-ups to food banks — most smaller companies live on credit and last month’s receipts.

A recent article in The Atlantic explained that nearly all of the six million incorporated companies in the U.S. employ fewer than 500 people. “Many of these small- and medium-size companies face extinction during the pandemic shutdown,” says the article. “While their income has evaporated, they still owe wages to workers and rent to landlords. This is a recipe for cascading bankruptcies.”

Similarly, the business pages wail that the U.S. economy shrank 4.8 per cent in the first quarter, its most severe contraction since the 2008 stock market crash. The IMF forecasts that Canada’s economy will shrink by 6.2 per cent this year. Since capitalism requires constant, endless growth, any shrinkage signals failure. Even with a significant rebound next year, catching up to earlier projections could take years.

Of course, all of these growth projections assume that the world’s goal is the “old normal”: a constantly growing economy driven by fossil fuels, where most products come from overseas and university graduates can aspire to pay back their student debt by dog-walking and driving or cycling for Uber Eats. On the other hand, shouts a growing chorus, if the economy is really that broken, this is the point in history where we could build it differently.

Declaring, “The current crisis is an unprecedented wake-up call,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres used his Earth Day speech to outline a new approach. “We need to turn the recovery into a real opportunity to do things right for the future,” he said.

“I am therefore proposing six climate-related actions to shape the recovery and the work ahead. First: as we spend huge amounts of money to recover from the coronavirus, we must deliver new jobs and businesses through a clean, green transition.” All of his other points follow from this: driving public money to building sustainable, resilient infrastructure and financial systems, and global co-operation.

“Now is no time to lose our nerve,” says Naomi Klein, urging Canadians and Americans to bail out of the old economy and make “The Leap” into green jobs and renewable energy.

“Moments of shock are volatile,” she says. “We either lose ground, get fleeced by elites, and pay the price for decades, or we win progressive victories that seemed impossible just a few weeks earlier.”

The Leap already has well-defined social and economic goals in health, work and climate, such as, “At least 40 percent of all housing should be publicly owned.” Behind each goal lies a thought-out philosophy, in this case: “The most effective public health and anti-poverty plan we have is housing for all.”

“The pandemic has shown us that the rich can shelter in second homes while seniors, working class and vulnerable communities in overcrowded or inadequate housing face a possible death sentence. This is unacceptable.” The People’s Bailout urges that government, “Suspend all rent and mortgage payments — no foreclosures or evictions during the crisis. And no debt bombs waiting on the other side.”

“The coronavirus crisis has revealed which workers are truly essential in our society,” it adds. “We must not only value care and public service work, but make it the foundation of our next economy.”

The Leap supports labour unions, of course. More than that, it supports worker ownership of the companies they work for. In this, they’re supported by the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation, representing 40 “solidarity” businesses, either worker-owned or where workers have voting rights. With so many businesses stretched thin by the shutdown, the CWCF has applied for funds to help some of them convert to worker-owned businesses, which are proven to be highly resilient in changing times.

The Leap correlates closely to the Green New Deal in the U.S. (There’s also a Green New Deal Canada, which has partnered with 150 existing organizations). The U.S. GND was defeated in the Senate in March 2019. Yet its spirit remains alive. Take the Sierra Club. As its website says, Sierra Club and the Green New Deal recognize that “Climate change and inequality are inextricably linked.”

“The goal of the Green New Deal is an economy that protects and works for all of us, and our shared home, the earth,” declares the Leap. “The best safeguard against a return to reckless pursuit of maximum profit is to put the economy under democratic control. Public, cooperative, and worker ownership must be a guiding principle as we roll out new infrastructure, industries, and jobs.”

“With everything up for grabs,” says the Council of Canadians website, offering, “The Green New Deal(s) we need now.” Globally, the COC sees an “imperative” for programs that include “the comprehensive decarbonisation and restructuring of our economies and social systems while protecting the climate from collapse … Recently, a powerful narrative has emerged: the Green New Deal, a powerful call for change that brings with it hopes for delivering deep social and economic transformations.”

Therefore, the COC and three other progressive organizations — Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Institute for Policy Studies — are holding webinars with Transform Europe and the Rosa Luxemburg Siftung. The next webinar, on May 6, features Maude Barlow, Mike Davis and Martin Schirdewan.

Reopening probably will last until fall, and maybe into next year. No one knows how many businesses will be able to reopen, and then survive under social distancing rules — or recurring cycles of pandemic and social isolation. But there seems to be consensus on one point.

“America will never be the same,” warns conservative commentator Grady Means in The Hill.  “America never has been hit so hard and lost so much, so quickly.”

“[COVID-19] has put millions out of work, has cut several trillion dollars out of the market, and endangered the survival of hundreds of thousands of American companies. In a very short period of time, it has been devastating and transformational …”

“The idea behind the Green New Deal is a simple one,” Naomi Klein writes in her latest book, On Fire. “… In the process of transforming the infrastructure of our societies at the speed and scale that scientists have called for, humanity has a once-in-a-century chance to fix an economic model that is failing the majority of people on multiple fronts.

“Because the factors that are destroying our planet are also destroying people’s lives in many other ways, from wage stagnation to gaping inequalities to crumbling services to surging white supremacy to the collapse of our information ecology. Challenging underlying forces is an opportunity to solve several interlocking crises at once.”  SOURCE

Would a Universal Basic Income (UBI) guarantee a good life for all Canadians?

Register for the second session of the Broadbent Institute’s 2020 Digital Convening Series on Thursday, May 14th at 10AM PT/1PM ET, for a discussion on UBI.

This pandemic has brought into sharp focus the critical need for income support and the idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI) has become part of the public conversation. Lifting the income floor is a top concern for progressive Canadians worried about growing poverty and increasing inequality.


“What are the key questions we need to ask about UBI? How do we best build social and economic solidarity while ensuring dignity and security for all Canadians?”

Simon Black, activist and Professor with the Department of Labour Studies at the Brock University, will first explore the origins and history of the idea of a universal income and the link between work and income. Armine Yalnizyan, Economist and Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers will then assess what forms of basic income are being proposed, what UBI could mean in a market economy, and the risks of looking to UBI as a silver bullet.

Please join us! If you weren’t able to join the first session, check out all the informative video and material presented hereRegister for all individual upcoming convenings here, too.

To involve as many people, with differing backgrounds and experiences, as possible in these important discussions about our shared future, all series convenings are free to join.

Alejandra Bravo, Director of Leadership and Training
Broadbent Institute

In the middle of a pandemic, renewables are taking over the grid

Photo: Ballonboy101 / CC BY-SA /3.0

The reduction in driving, flying, and industrial activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic has cleared the air in typically smog-choked cities all over the world, inspiring awe in residents who are seeing more blue skies and starry nights than ever before. While the drop in pollution doesn’t necessarily mean we’re making progress in mitigating climate change, it’s now proving to be a boon for solar energy generation.

Pollution blocks solar radiation, and the fine particles spat out during combustion can settle on the surface of solar panels, reducing their efficiency. Smog-free skies, along with a lucky combination of sunny days and cooler temperatures, which boost panel efficiency, have helped solar panels break records in the U.K., Germany, and Spain this spring. The trend points to the potential for a positive (and hopeful) feedback loop — as polluting energy sources are replaced by solar panels, those solar panels will be able to generate more energy.

In Germany, a record that was set in March was broken again on April 20, when solar generated 40 percent of the country’s electricity, while coal and nuclear power generated just 22 percent. It’s actually not unusual to see solar generation records this time of year, when new panels installed in the winter get their first time to shine in the spring weather. While the added capacity explains some of solar’s grid takeover, the drop in electricity demand right now due to the pandemic has also inflated its proportion in the total mix.

In the U.K., record solar power generation also helped coal plants set a major record, but the opposite kind. The entire U.K. energy system ran with zero coal-fired power plant generation for more than 18 days, the longest streak in more than a century. Britain has just four remaining coal plants, all of which are scheduled to close by 2025.

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched renewable energy in myriad ways, and not all good. In early March, it became clear that the virus was disrupting supply chains and financing, which will delay new solar and wind projects in the U.S. For the first time in decades, we probably won’t see increased growth in U.S. renewable energy capacity this year. But even if growth is slower, a new report from the International Energy Agency released Thursday predicts that renewables will likely be the only energy sector to see any growth in demand this year, and that coal is set for the largest decline in demand since World War II.

While it’s still hard to say how the industry will emerge from the rubble of a massive recession — especially as efforts to help it domestically have been a nonstarter in Congress — a new study by clean energy research firm BloombergNEF paints an optimistic picture that the renewable energy takeover will continue on a global scale. The financial research firm found that utility-scale solar farms and onshore wind farms now offer the cheapest source of electricity for about two-thirds of the world’s population.

The study finds that falling costs, more efficient technology, and government support in some parts of the world have fostered larger renewable power plants, with the average wind farm now double the size it was four years ago. The larger the plant, the lower the cost of generation. The price of electricity from onshore wind farms dropped 9 percent since mid-2019, and solar electricity prices likewise declined 4 percent.

The pandemic has depressed the price of coal and natural gas, so it remains to be seen whether and how quickly wind and solar will push them off the grid. But Tifenn Brandily, an analyst at BNEF, said in a statement that solar and wind prices haven’t hit the floor yet. “There are plenty of innovations in the pipeline that will drive down costs further,” he said. SOURCE

George Monbiot: Airlines and oil giants are on the brink. No government should offer them a lifeline

Do Not Resuscitate. This tag should be attached to the oil, airline and car industries. Governments should provide financial support to company workers while refashioning the economy to provide new jobs in different sectors. They should prop up only those sectors that will help secure the survival of humanity and the rest of the living world.

They should either buy up the dirty industries and turn them towards clean technologies, or do what they often call for but never really want: let the market decide. In other words, allow these companies to fail.

This is our second great chance to do things differently. It could be our last. The first, in 2008, was spectacularly squandered. Vast amounts of public money were spent reassembling the filthy old economy, while ensuring that wealth remained in the hands of the rich. Today, many governments appear determined to repeat that catastrophic mistake.

The Bank of England has decided to buy debt from oil companies such as BP, Shell and Total. The government has given easyJet a £600m loan even though, just a few weeks ago, the company frittered away £171m in dividends: profit is privatised, risk is socialised. In the US, the first bailout includes $25bn (£20.1bn) for airlines. Overall, the bailout involves sucking as much oil as possible into strategic petroleum reserves and sweeping away pollution laws, while freezing out renewable energy. Several European countries are seeking to rescue their airlines and car manufacturers.

Don’t believe them when they tell you they do this on our behalf. A recent survey by Ipsos of 14 countries suggests that, on average, 65% of people want climate change to be prioritised in the economic recovery. Everywhere, electorates must struggle to persuade governments to act in the interests of the people, rather than the corporations and billionaires who fund and lobby them. The perennial democratic challenge is to break the bonds between politicians and the economic sectors they should be regulating, or, in this case, closing down.

Even when legislators seek to represent these concerns, their efforts are often feeble and naive. The recent letter to the government from a cross-party group of MPs calling for airlines to receive a bailout only if they “do more to tackle the climate crisis” could have been written in 1990. Air travel is inherently polluting. There are no realistic measures that could, even in the medium term, make a significant difference. We now know that the carbon offsetting schemes the MPs call for is useless: every economic sector needs to maximise cuts in greenhouse gases, so shifting the responsibility from one sector to another solves nothing. The only meaningful reform is fewer flights. Anything that impedes the contraction of the aviation industry impedes the reduction of its impacts.

The current crisis gives us a glimpse of how much we need to do to pull out of our disastrous trajectory. Despite the vast changes we have made in our lives, global carbon dioxide emissions are likely to reduce by only about 5.5% this year. A UN report shows that to stand a reasonable chance of avoiding 1.5C or more of global heating, we need to cut emissions by 7.6% per year for the next decade. In other words, the lockdown exposes the limits of individual action. Travelling less helps, but not enough. To make the necessary cuts we need structural change. This means an entirely new industrial policy, created and guided by government.

Governments like the UK’s should drop their road-building plans. Instead of expanding airports, they should publish plans for reducing landing slots. They should commit to an explicit policy of leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

During the pandemic, many of us have begun to discover how much of our travel is unnecessary. Governments can build on this to create plans for reducing the need to move, while investing in walking, cycling and – when physical distancing is less necessary – public transport. This means wider pavements, better cycle lanes, buses run for service not profit. They should invest heavily in green energy, and even more heavily in reducing energy demand – through, for example, home insulation and better heating and lighting. The pandemic exposes the need for better neighbourhood design, with less public space given to cars and more to people. It also shows how badly we need the kind of security that a lightly taxed, deregulated economy cannot deliver.

In other words, let’s have what many people were calling for long before this disaster hit: a green new deal. But please let’s stop describing it as a stimulus package. We have stimulated consumption too much over the past century, which is why we face environmental disaster. Let us call it a survival package, whose purpose is to provide incomes, distribute wealth and avoid catastrophe, without stoking perpetual economic growth. Bail out the people, not the corporations. Bail out the living world, not its destroyers. Let’s not waste our second chance. SOURCE


  • George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist

Climate action under duress: how Dutch were forced into emissions cuts

Measures taken in response to court ruling have yet to face much dissent, partly owing to coronavirus

 Marjan Minnesma (second right) in a crowd outside the Dutch supreme court before its ruling in the Urgenda case in December. Photograph: Sem van der Wal/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

Last month the Dutch government announced a bold set of climate policies designed to reduce annual carbon emissions by nearly 10 megatons, comparable to the yearly output of Latvia.

Several new coal power plants are to be closed or run at minimum capacity, a €3bn spending package will subsidise renewable energy projects and home refits, and there are a slew of smaller policy tweaks, for example on livestock numbers, reforestation and lowering the national speed limit.

The middle of a public health crisis may seem like a strange time to make new climate commitments, but the Dutch government had little choice. A court case brought by environmental groups in 2014 and upheld by the supreme court last year forced the government to act to reduce emissions to 25% below 1990 levels by the end of 2020 at the latest. It is climate action under extreme duress.

There are more than 1,500 climate lawsuits either complete or ongoing in the world, including similar cases in Ireland and Norway, but this is by far the most successful to date. Michael Gerrard, the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, says the Dutch case is the “strongest climate change decision ever issued by a court” and the only one that has forced government policy.

It has big implications not only for climate law but also for governments, most of whose climate policies are years behind their ambitious pledges. Christiana Figueres, the former head of the UN framework convention on climate change, called it “a test case for very rapid emission reductions” that other nations should watch closely.

The Dutch government has opted for a crash programme, choosing policies that should mean it hits the target in the eight months remaining in 2020. But it didn’t have to be this way.

Marjan Minnesma, the head of the Urgenda Foundation, which filed the initial legal challenge, says the policies are “a great victory for the rule of law” but points out that Urgenda won its initial case in a district court in The Hague in June 2015.

The 2020 target was set at that time and could have been reached gradually, but the government twice tied the case up in appeals, eventually losing in the supreme court in December last year. “It took a long time to step up – five years of not embracing the judgment,” says Matt Siennot, an MP with Democrats 66.

An adviser to the Dutch government says the ruling coalition at the time of the original ruling – between the centrist People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy and the centre-left Labour party – was split on whether to take action and afraid that accepting the decision would open the way to further legal challenges. So they let it languish. “They would say they worked on it, but little was done” he said.

Their fears about the courts were ultimately correct: the Netherlands is now a proving ground for environmental lawsuits. A similar case to cap nitrogen pollution was won in 2018, and one of the lawyers from the Urgenda case has partnered with Friends of the Earth to sue Shell, which is headquartered in The Hague.

After the supreme court decision, Minnesma was invited to meet government ministers to present potential carbon reduction policies, and she found their reticence had melted away. “A year ago they wouldn’t have listened to any of that, but suddenly they were all writing it down,” she says.

What she presented was a green wishlist sourced from more than 800 NGOs and institutions – everything from housing associations with ambitious retrofitting strategies to animal rights groups pushing a meat tax and a national meat-free day.

“We are bringing these ideas from a wide range of Dutch society. We would say: if you want a broad group to accept it, these are the right things. I got the sense they were willing to listen.”

Paul van der Zanden, a spokesperson for the economics and climate ministry, says: “Finding social support was important for these 2020 climate goals. Urgenda gave a great help in the search for climate measures that citizens can take themselves.”

Many of the ideas would have been sidelined for years without the push provided by the court decision. Jan Willem Erisman, a professor at the Free University of Amsterdam who works on emissions in agriculture and who contributed proposals to Urgenda, says: “The lawsuits are almost needed for the work to be considered by the government. Otherwise economic concerns get in the way, targets are set, we don’t reach them, and then new targets get set.”

The Dutch climate agreement presented in the summer of 2019 was the product of cooperation between industry, the energy sector, unions, environmental groups and citizen groups.

The Dutch government believes public and social support are essential for a successful climate policy, and it helps citizens to take climate measures themselves. For example, it provides financial support for lowering households’ energy consumption.

Ultimately, the government settled on the easiest option for the bulk of the emissions reductions. One coal-fired power plant will be closed outright, and two others built in 2016 will run at a minimal level. This alone will save 5-7.5mt of emissions. But several more public-facing measures from the Urgenda list were selected as well. There will be €2bn for renewable energy subsidies, much of it for rooftop solar, and buybacks of inefficient household appliances. Housing associations will receive much of a €300m pot for retrofitting.

“So far there really hasn’t been much of an attempt to involve people in policies to slow climate change,” says Rebecca Willis, an environmental policy researcher at Lancaster University. “Governments often prioritise policies that don’t impact directly on people’s lives, like switching to renewable energy. But the changes now needed, from switching to electric vehicles and public transport to eating less meat, will affect people’s lives, and it’s vital to work with people to involve them.”

Perhaps surprisingly, none of the Dutch measures have provoked much of a pushback yet. The Netherlands is no stranger to the climate culture war. The speed limit change from 130km/h to 100km/h – a measure that has already been brought in and is expected to save half a megaton of carbon per year – was mocked as “nonsense” by the far-right MP Geert Wilders and criticised by motoring lobbyists, but the much larger and more expensive parts of the package have passed relatively quietly.

The government may have the coronavirus crisis to thank for that. Compared with the spending programmes being rolled out in response to the pandemic, a climate programme that would be huge any other year now seems slight and has not attracted much notice.

Remco De Boer, an energy analyst, says: “There’s so much else happening. And they’re spending money. KLM [the Dutch airline] has just been rescued [for €4bn].” He says measures such as renewables subsidies and home upgrades also fit with the desire for economic stimulus.

The crisis has also provided the government with a bit of wiggle room in delivering the policies. Emissions for 2020 will be much reduced with so much economic activity suspended. Pieter Boot, the head of climate at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, estimates that even a short lockdown could knock more than 5mt off the yearly total.

But Minnesma says that even if emissions get a one-time reprieve, the measures need to be permanent. The court verdict will be just as valid next year and every year going forward. “We still have the rule of law,” she says, “and we have shown using the law as an instrument of change is possible.”

SOURCE

Carbon Emissions Turned Back 10 Years

Data show coronavirus countermeasures have resulted in a record drop in fossil-fuel demand and created an opening for a clean-energy transition

The early months of 2020 have offered a glimpse of a world with less demand for fossil fuels as it tries to contain the coronavirus pandemic. It is a world in which renewable energy makes up a greater share of energy use, and carbon emissions are turned back to levels from a decade ago. Researchers at the Paris-based International Energy Agency, which last week released its Global Energy Review 2020, say any lasting effects “will be determined by the duration of lockdown measures and the recovery paths taken.”

DATA-STORY-carbon-emissions-FINAL-1-1795x9999.jpg (1795×9999)

SOURCE

Rich nations must make pandemic recovery plans green – global investors

While some of the world’s biggest economies have pledged post-pandemic green recovery, big emitters like China have yet to do so

LONDON, May 4 (Reuters) – The world’s richest nations must ensure their COVID-19 recovery plans are sustainable and help meet the goals of the Paris climate accord, according to leading global investor groups that together manage trillions of dollars in assets.

While some members of the world’s 20 biggest economies such as Britain, France and Germany have made statements about doing just that, some of the biggest emitters such as China and the United States have yet to do so.

The intervention comes as more governments start to plan for the lifting of lockdown restrictions that have cratered the revenues of companies from airlines to retailers and radically changed the economics of the energy sector.

Coronavirus: our latest stories

The groups said private capital would play a key role in the recovery, but investors needed long-term policies to be put in place that reflected the agreed move to a low-carbon economy.

“Recovery plans that exacerbate climate change would expose investors and national economies to escalating financial, health and social risks in the coming years,” they said in a statement said on Monday.

“Governments should avoid the prioritisation of risky, short-term emissions-intensive projects,” added the groups, which include the Institutional Investor Group on Climate Change, members of which include BlackRock.

Recovery money would be best spent on creating jobs and sustainable infrastructure that helped meet the goal of net zero carbon emissions across sectors including energy, industrials, building and transport, they said.

Also signing the statement, under the collective group known as the Investor Agenda, were the United Nations-backed Principles for Responsible Investment, Ceres, CDP, Investor Group on Climate Change, Asia Investor Group on Climate Change and the UNEP Finance Initiative.

The statement follows similar calls for a green recovery in recent days from International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, among others.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last week urged the G20 to do more calling for “brave, visionary and collaborative leadership” to use COVID-19 relief money to accelerate the decarbonisation of the world economy.

The G20 collectively accounted for more than 80% of global emissions and over 85% of the global economy, and without a contribution by the biggest emitters, global efforts risked being doomed to failure, he said. SOURCE

In ocean biodiversity hotspots, microplastics come with the currents

Banner image caption: An underwater scene in Cape Kri, Indonesia. Image by the Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

    • A new study has found that microplastics are falling to the seafloor, being carried by bottom currents, and accumulating at certain points in the ocean, coined as “microplastic hotspots” by the authors.
    • Microplastic hotspots contain up to 1.9 million pieces of plastic per square meter, the highest concentration of plastic ever recorded on the seafloor.
    • The most common microplastic found in the ocean is microfibers from textiles, which enters the ocean through domestic and industrial waste water systems.
    • The study suggests that microplastics are ending up in biodiversity hotspots in the ocean, where they can easily enter and disrupt the marine ecosystem.

A microplastic is a tiny speck of a thing. At its largest, it’s about the size of a linseed, but smaller microplastics can’t be seen with the naked eye. Minuscule as they are, huge quantities of these particles are gushing into the ocean, and they’re almost certainly causing damage to delicate marine ecosystems, experts say.

A new report published in Science reveals the roving trajectory of microplastics after they enter the ocean. While some microplastics, like flecks of polystyrene, may float on the surface, most microplastics accrue algae and minerals that cause them to sink to the seafloor. From there, microplastics are picked up by deep-sea currents, which deposit them in areas of high sediment, creating what the study’s authors call “microplastic hotspots.”

An illustration of how microplastics travel through the marine ecosystem. Image by Ian Kane.

A team of international researchers collected data for this study by taking sediment samples from the seafloor in the Tyrrhenian Sea in the Mediterranean. They found that microplastic accumulated at depths of 600 to 900 meters (about 2,000 to 3,000 feet), and that microplastic hotspots can hold up to 1.9 million pieces per square meter, which is the highest level ever to be recorded on the seafloor, according to Ian Kane, the study’s lead author.

“We were shocked by the sheer number of [microplastics],” Kane told Mongabay. “1.9 million is enormous. Previous studies have documented much smaller numbers, and … just talked about plastic fragments, but it’s fibers that are really the more insidious of the microplastics. These are the things that are more readily consumed and absorbed into organisms’ flesh.”

A “microplastic” is generally defined as a particle smaller than 5 millimeters, or about a fifth of an inch. Some microplastics are deliberately manufactured, like microbeads found in cosmetics, while others form when sunlight breaks down “macroplastics,” such as plastic water bottles and food containers. However, the majority of microplastics are textile fibers from things like polyester clothing, Kane said.

A collection of microplastic fragments, including microfibers. Image by Ian Kane.

“Most of it is coming out of wastewater treatment from both domestic and industrial sources, and being carried through the sewage system,” Kane said. “The problem at the moment is that the filters on most wastewater treatment plants don’t filter out microplastics, so they’re entering river systems and then they’re being flushed out into the sea.”

The problem with microplastics is that they attract and accumulate toxins that make them dangerous to any organism that consumes or absorbs them.

“They act as focal points for the accumulation or precipitation of toxins on their surface … in particular, things like hydrocarbons,” Kane said. “And they last a long time. They don’t break down quickly so they can accumulate these toxins, they can be consumed by organisms, and they can persist even after that organism dies. So they’re very long-lived nucleation points for the toxins and nasty things.”

The bottom currents that push microplastics around on the seafloor are also responsible for moving oxygen and nutrients, which suggests that plastic is ending up in biodiversity hotspots in the ocean, where it can cause the most damage.

A coral reef system in Raja Ampat, Indonesia. Image by the Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

“The effects of microplastics in the deep sea ecosystem are really poorly understood,” Kane said. “[Microplastics] are available to be consumed, and they can also be absorbed into the flesh of soft-bodied creatures. So they’re entering the food web at the lowest levels, and by the time you get to the bigger creatures in the trophic web, then they have the opportunity to consume a lot of microplastic.”

While more research needs to be done on the subject, this report fills some critical gaps in plastic pollution research: it shows how large quantities of microplastics can travel to the seafloor, and be carried into critical marine habitats.

“Our study has shown how detailed studies of seafloor currents can help us to connect microplastic transport pathways in the deep-sea and find the ‘missing’ microplastics,” Mike Clare, a co-author of the study, said in a statement. “The results highlight the need for policy interventions to limit the future flow of plastics into natural environments and minimize impacts on ocean ecosystems.” SOURCE

COVID-19 has laid bare how unprepared we are for crises — and climate change will test us even more

Unless steps are taken to check global warming, up to 3 billion people will find themselves in areas too warm for human comfort, a new study finds.

It’s taken a global, monumental effort but COVID-19 has shown us what’s possible when we collectively act. So why can’t we do the same for climate change, writes Thomas Gunton. (CBC)

While the lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic await an in-depth review, one of them is painfully obvious: Humans are very poor at anticipating and avoiding catastrophic events, even if they know they are coming.

Warnings from scientists about an impending pandemic have been circulating for decades. A series of publications in the 1990s by scientists such as Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg highlighted the threat. In 2015, Bill Gates urged the world to prepare for a pandemic and just last year the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services said fears of a pandemic are what keeps him awake at night.

When the COVID-19 outbreak began in China, these warnings moved from hypothetical forecasts to real-world events.  But even this did not motivate the world to act.

It was not until the pandemic spread globally that most countries implemented mitigation measures to “flatten the curve,” only to find out they did not have the equipment or capacity to manage the outbreak because they had not prepared.

What all this shows is that humans appear to be unable to respond to a threat until they are attacked.

The reason for this seeming inability to respond to threats until we are overwhelmed is unfortunately wired into the human DNA. Psychologists refer to this as our propensity for using intuitive thinking that relies on short-term memory and “gut feeling” as a guide to making decisions.

This strategy works well in many aspects of life involving routine decisions. But it gets us into serious trouble when we face atypical, complex crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.

The problem is that by the time we understand and respond to a new crisis, much of the damage is done and it is difficult to solve. In the case of COVID-19, this has cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

A reduction in travel due to COVID-19 has led to reduced pollution and better air quality, but this will almost certainly be reversed when the pandemic ends. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

 

The next crisis on the horizon is climate change.

Again, the warnings from science are clear. If we do not dramatically reduce emissions, we risk increasingly severe to catastrophic warming of the globe that will ultimately threaten our survival.

In B.C., we are already experiencing the early impacts, such as more severe flooding and forest fires, and the threats will only intensify over the next several decades.

With COVID-19 we have been able to flatten the curve by physical distancing and we will likely be able to eliminate the virus by means of a vaccine within a year or two.

With climate change, flattening the curve is not as easy. Once climate change reaches critical thresholds and accelerates by a series of reinforcing events, such as the release of emissions from the melting of the permafrostthere is no simple equivalent to physical distancing or a vaccine to solve the problem.

Clearly, it is possible to take steps that have immediate impact. The improvement in air quality resulting from COVID-19-induced shutdowns, for example, shows the benefits of reducing emissions. But these short-term reductions will be reversed when the restrictions ease.  

And the long-term trends of climate change remain worrying. Despite the proliferation of government commitments and continued warnings from scientists, the world is on course to exceed the climate change target set by the Paris Agreement in 2015. According to the United Nations’ most recent report on emissions gaps, the Earth will warm by 3.2 C by the end of the century, more than double the Paris accord’s target of 1.5 C.

The warming trend could be even higher than 3.2 C because countries like Canada are not expected to meet their committed reductions unless new measures are implemented.  According to the UN, Canada will exceed its targets by over 15 per cent. Data recently released by the Canadian government shows our emissions actually increased in 2018.

Protesters march through downtown Vancouver to mark a global climate strike on Sept. 27, 2019. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

 

The similarities between COVID-19 and climate change are striking. In both cases, scientists have given ample warning.  And in both cases, governments have taken mitigative but inadequate actions while the threats have been downplayed by skepticism about the likelihood and severity of the crisis, along with concerns about the economic costs of preparation and mitigation.

But there are also fundamental differences between the two. We have seen the impact of measures to reduce COVID-19 within a few weeks, which reinforces our motivation to mitigate. With climate change, the impact of mitigation are longer term and less transparent.

Also, COVID-19 can be managed — albeit at a high cost — despite our delayed response. Climate change, on the other hand, will be beyond our capacity to manage if we leave it too late.

The good news is we have the ability to meet our climate-change commitments by replacing fossil fuels with wind and solar energy, buying electric cars, and upgrading our homes and businesses to reduce energy consumption.

And, as the International Energy Agency states, the current economic downturn presents a major opportunity for governments to accelerate the trend toward clean energy.

The bad news is we are not doing enough and some of our actions, such as increasing oil production and expanding the Trans Mountain oil pipeline, are actually making things worse.

Ultimately, the choice is ours. Are we going to learn the hard lessons from this pandemic and aggressively tackle climate change, or are we going to delay until it is too late? SOURCE


Thomas Gunton  is the director of the Resource and Environmental Planning Program at Simon Fraser University and a former B.C. deputy environment minister.