COVID-19 immobilised the world, but emissions barely changed, so what’s the problem?
By Jessica Tinkler MSc Climate Change: Impacts, Adaptation and Mitigation Graduate (Ethical Team Intern Associate)
During New York’s Climate Week the city’s skyline was illuminated in green. As one of the planet’s most celebrated and influential annual climate gatherings, the great and good of the world ‘sustainability-bubble’ have been debating and reflecting on our climate emergency and how the planet might navigate through it.
COVID-19 has delayed climate negotiations worldwide, including COP26, the annual conference of parties, which will be held in Glasgow in November next year. Understandably, these cancellations are having a significant impact on the development of climate change policy and subsequent legislation so we mustn’t be complacent about our uncertain future.
Businesses, government, celebrities, and even aristocracy have raised a clarion call about the impending severity and urgency of climate change. At the virtual opening of New York climate week Prince Charles issued a galvanising message that the climate crisis “will dwarf the impact of coronavirus”. On the second day, Tesco joined the corporations pressuring the UK government to meet the target of 100% zero-emission vehicle sales by 2030. And China has revised its climate ambitions as President Xi Jinping announces that China seeks to be carbon neutral by 2060. After a busy first few days, perhaps with this surmounting pressure, the coming year might be the turning point to tackle climate change. We’ve waited a long time for any sort of real global change, so what will it take to accelerate a paradigm shift.
It’s time to stop talking about economic growth which is fundamentally incompatible with environmental sustainability.
A recent study found that the reduction in Greenhouse Gas emissions throughout the COVID-19 lockdown will have a minute impact on the temperature change by 2030; only 0.01℃. This signals what momentous lifestyle and systematic changes are in fact required throughout the world to sustain reduced emissions and minimise the temperature increase. The decrease in emissions (a decline of around 30%) is mostly attributed to the immobilisation of the global population, so what else must change long-term?
New studies prove that the most drastic adjustments must be made in developed countries. Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute found that the wealthiest 1% of the global population produces more than twice the emissions of the poorest 3.1 billion people, consuming 9% of the global carbon budget. Not just a result of high dependency on transport and high carbon modes like air travel, but also down to overconsumption.
Researchers from the University of Leeds and the University of New South Wales affirmed in June that the intrinsic precedence of economic growth is incompatible with environmental sustainability. Technological innovation alone will not halt or reverse climate change, not until the idolisation of affluence and consumption are addressed. As emerging economies, including China and India, move to traditional Western models of consumption, global emissions are skyrocketing. Tackling “culture” in this way is a monumental feat for climate activists and governments and brings in the inevitable conversation of climate justice, who is responsible, who must change and who should pay.
“Earth-overshoot Day”, the annual date at which we would have used our 2020 allowance of planetary resources passed most of us by on August 22nd. Although a little later than predicted because of the pandemic and the reduced pace of life, each year, Earth Overshoot Day moves earlier and earlier. The delay this year has not come about by deliberate intervention or strategy but by a global disaster. Should we wait with bated breath for the end of Climate Week 2020 for any tangible commitments to addressing climate change or will it be another set of false promises because as human beings we’re very good at making commitments we just can’t keep?