The world is experiencing amongst the highest daily increase in the number of infections recorded with SARS-Cov-2 virus since it was first recognised in late 2019. Nearly 49 million infections have been detected globally since then with 1.23 million deaths, (Johns Hopkins, 6 November 2020) , and a peak isn’t yet in sight.
The morbidity and social impacts are also compounding, and there is widespread alarm about how the global economic damage that is also accelerating will be managed. A full economic recovery will take years.
Unfortunately though, the pandemic has occurred at a critical point in the negotiations over how the world is to contain the inevitable and abrupt impacts of climate change, and to fund the priority actions needed to mitigate them.
The comment that follows examines the potential for a conflict over how to resolve both pressing goals together, and whether or not there are opportunities to do so within the limited timeframes that are critical for each.
The transition to a low carbon economy
One of the key expectations that arose from the latest international Treaty on climate change, the Paris Agreement 2016, was a strategy for the world to transition from a pervasive reliance on fossil fuel energy sources to alternatives with low carbon emissions. Both the government and industry sectors committed to be heavily involved.
The transition is now well underway in developed and developing countries. However, one estimate is that more than $US 90 trillion could be needed by 2030, if the current rate of the world’s net carbon emissions is to be slowed sufficiently to prevent the rise in the atmospheric temperature across the planet from reaching 1.5 0C. above its pre-industrial benchmark ( Central bank networks, 2019)
Analyses published in late 2019 suggest that the global measures to decarbonise the global economy agreed to by the 187 UN Member States who ratified the Treaty, fall far short of what is needed.
As an example, the world’s largest 50 economies have estimated that they will spend a total of $US12 trillion by 2030 for this purpose. The Heads of Government meeting scheduled for late 2021 to review the Treaty could therefore be very difficult because of one key fact: the bulk of these funds would need to be deployed early in the decade and not at the end. So, the critical investment period is from now out to 2025.
The urgency is accentuated by the calculation showing that current total annual global emissions of 43 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide must be reduced to 25 billion tonnes each year by 2030, if the global average temperature is to remain below +1.50C.
The equivalent figure to remain below +20C is 40 billion tonnes p.a. But the more relaxed target may be irrelevant since the planet is expected to be unacceptably hot and dangerous for the both our existing lifestyles and its natural ecosystems during the second half of the century. .(IPCC +1.5, 2018)
Regrettably, if the world’s current pattern of consuming fossil fuels were to continue unabated, the $US 12 trillion commitment declared in 2019 fails to prevent the total emissions from rising to 60 billion tonnes p.a. by 2030 (UNEP, 2019).
The COVID-19 story so far
An intensive and costly effort is being made to develop vaccines and drug therapies to address the rapid spread of COVID-19 , because the virus is not only highly infectious, but is also associated with a complex pathology and a poorly understood immune response.
Factors such as the prevalence of asymptomatic carriage of the virus across the community; the apparent instability of the body’s protective (neutralising) antibodies that disappear after three months of an infection; and the nature a of longer-term medical complications following even some mild infections, collectively present a picture of a global disease with enormous morbidity potential.
There is optimism that more than one vaccine will be produced by early 2021, but the disease will most likely persist as a global endemic infection because of the size of the task involved in its distribution. More than 45% of each community would need to be immunised before the virus transmission pattern would be interrupted within its region (creating the notion of ‘herd immunity). (Iwasaki & Medzhitov).
One the other hand, climate change is also driving the exposure by humans to other viral zoonotic pathogens providing similar public health threats to the SARS group. The catastrophic loss in global biodiversity being driven by the progressive heating of the planet is making outbreaks of these diseases more likely, which could set the scene for similar or even worse pandemics. (Lustgarten)
Integrated funding for both threats – conflict or opportunity?
Many of the dangerous impacts of climate change are now on an irreversible path, so effort is now needed to ameliorate the worst quickly. The pressure to do so is increased because measures to contain the growth in carbon dioxide emissions are facing an uphill battle. It seems highly likely that the world’s attachment to the burning of one of more of the fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) will continue to remain strong for decades.
Fossil fuel burning is tightly integrated into the core infrastructure systems that underpin our day-to-day transactions. So much so that there are concerns that poorly designed interventions to eliminate their use could create local or regional social unrest in some poor developing countries, and even jeopardise their economic stability.
This perhaps explains not only why more than 1000 coal fired power stations are either planned or are already under construction around the world; nor why even some of the funds ear-marked for COVID interventions appear to have the unintended consequence of prolonging a dependence on fossil fuels.
For example, an analysis was published in May 2020 of the COVID-expenditure commitments by those of the G20 countries who are responsible for around 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions (O’Callaghan). For one pool of funds with $US 240 billion, $151 billion is supporting fossil fuel consumption while only $89 billion is supporting clean energy use.
But the social value of the total investment pool is further reduced by only 20% of the fossil fuel allocation having environmentally sensitive requirements attached to them. At the same time, 81% of the clean energy funds available failed to specify appropriate environmental safeguards.
A similar calculation hasn’t been published for the $200 billion stimulus provided from Australia’s national budget to support our COVID recovery, but there is no reason to expect that our local position is different. The IMF reported in 2019 that fossil fuels here received $AU 40 billion in public subsidies during 2015 (reported as $US 29 bn).
In the long run, competent international economic management could mitigate the worst of COVID’s social impacts, but it appears certain that the cumulative expected economic loss will drive a significant restructuring of international capital flows and national expenditure patterns for decades.
Europe for example, passed a law in mid-July 2020 mobilising $US 750 billion for a COVID crisis management fund that will impose a debt load on its member countries which hasn’t been seen for generations.
Meanwhile, the health system in many regions of the world where the COVID infection is active will be further stressed by the growing impacts of the extreme weather events of climate change. It will aggravate local health threats including: the physiological impacts of heat stroke; mosquito-borne arbovirus infections such as dengue fever; water-borne diseases from flash flooding; and reduced food security from higher agricultural losses in exposed areas.
The fact that the virus and climate risks are increasing simultaneously makes it obvious that preference should be given to investments that accelerate the COVID recovery whilst facilitating low carbon emissions products, services and transactions.
Supporting this is the recognition that investment risk is elevated when funding is diverted to carbon- intensive capital assets with a target of achieving short-term marginal cost savings. These assets face higher ‘stranded asset’ risk as their outmoded technologies progressively become redundant. The risk has become real over the past year as an increasing number of countries and international businesses declare their goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
It is also important for cost-benefit assessments of all proposed COVID investments to consider the carbon emissions profile for the full life cycle of all asset classes, products and services involved(the ‘cradle to grave’managment) . And where possible, incorporate an appropriate internal price of carbon to recognise the social externality costs that will be created.
This technique is increasingly favouring the new generation of solar and wind technologies that have traditionally needed a high initial capital outlay but then offered lower ongoing operational expenses.
Fortunately for electricity production in particular, the new genre of renewable energy systems are now matching coal powered generators with lower initial CAPEX, as well and similar levels of supply reliability.(AEMO) So, post- COVID job-stimulating programs funded by governments that expand renewable energy generation and use, scan enjoy both social and environmental multipliers across both the short and long terms.
The COVID recovery could therefore provide the fillip needed for a strategic change away from yesterday’s carbon intensive industrial and commercial processes. Some countries will move faster than others, as will some industry sectors.
But it is vital that governments have the conviction to drive the strategic change and then implement the necessary policy settings for the transition to a zero-carbon post-COVID world to be accelerated.
A significant portion of the estimated $US 15 trillion that will be needed for the global COVID recovery could usefully be diverted to goals such as installing new low carbon energy generating assets; modernising their distribution efficiency; retrofitting buildings to minimise or even eliminate their carbon footprint; or enhancing ecosystem resilience by fostering biosequestration in carbon-rich habitats and climate-friendly agriculture (O’Callaghan).
The Middle Way Pty Ltd, Sydney
Updated November 2020
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