Will 2021 be the year of the climate?

As featured in Edition 37, available here.


By THOM BARNES-WISE

In a world of considerable terror, where tragedy seems like the foundation of society, one fundamental problem is increasingly grasping at the general public’s fear and lingering in their minds – climate change. It is now an indisputable fact that the planet is undergoing widespread global warming and seeing dramatic changes in weather patterns as a result of human activity and, unless something is done soon, that we will be thrown into a brutal and unforgiving crisis that will permanently and negatively affect both our species and the world at large. Fortunately, humanity has a small slither of time in which to make the bold and necessary changes to our way of life in order to ensure the world can remain in some semblance of normality. 2021 may very well be a defining point in the history of humanity.


Unfortunately, two things currently hinder plans to negate climate change; world governments and the large corporations they increasingly represent are profiting off an economic system that encourages and facilitates the destruction of our planet. It is in the short-term interests of world leaders to maintain and expand their countries emission rates to ensure economic growth and riches for their nation. In liberal democracies, the idea of cutting these high polluting jobs (in fracking, manufacturing, transport, coal plants and the like) is terrifying, for it seems like an unpopular path to electoral loss and years spent in the political wilderness. For more authoritarian states, where electoral victory is less of a concern, the voices of climate activists can be safely ignored and the corporate leaders who profit from destroying the world can usually maintain the status quo through corruption.


The second problem is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the effects it is having upon the world. Putting the staggering death toll aside, which should be viewed as intolerable in and of itself, the economic consequences of the pandemic have been monstrous. The IMF predicts that 2020 will be the worst year for the world economy since the Great Depression and estimates the global cost of recovery will exceed $28 trillion. With an economic disaster like this, it is undoubtable that economic recovery from the pandemic will remain the predominant thought of politicians’ collective consciousness for years and, perhaps, the rest of the 2020s.


The good news is that world governments are warming up to the idea that action to save the planet may be necessary. The Biden Administration, which assumed office on the 20th of January, vows to take major steps forward: recommitting to the Paris Agreement and a series of day one executive orders to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 are the two most impressive policies. Similarly, Xi Jinping has pledged carbon neutrality by 2060 in China and the EU plans to be the first ‘carbon neutral continent’ by 2050. Whilst there are still notable emitters missing from these new commitments – Russia and India especially are dragging their heels – these announcements are welcome developments and represent a dramatic shift in policy from the 2000s and 2010s where environmental concerns were minimal.


But make no mistake, these commitments have not come about as a result of nations suddenly deciding they need to be paragons of virtue, bastions of morality or stalwart defenders of the earth. Rather, governments are changing their policies because it has finally become politically shrewd to take the side of the climate activist and to claim that, of course, the environment has always been a priority. The Biden campaign was particularly two-faced: presenting him as a “climate change pioneer”, ready to make America a world leader of sustainability whilst simultaneously assuring potential swing voters (primarily Pennsylvanians) that he “never said [he opposes] fracking” and would not ban the industry, as in the last presidential debate. As could be expected from a man who has spent most of his political career having very few concrete opinions, his words change depending on what crowd he is with and the world should not hold its breath and wait to see what action Washington takes. China, meanwhile, has noticed a weak spot in American foreign policy – its own ego. Subverting American assumptions that unless the US does it first, Xi Jinping has placed China front-and-centre in the fight against climate change. In September he promised peak emissions by 2030 and net-zero by 2060 and has presented China as a staunch ally to the EU, in regard to climate policy. China is now positioning itself to be the major actor for the climate, meaning that organisations anxious about the environment may be forced to look past China’s notable issues – its treatment of the Uighurs, Hong Kong, and militarism in the South China Sea – as long as it commits to saving the planet for the rest of us. Whilst clearly for cynical and self-serving purposes, the politicisation of the climate is probably a good thing. Only the world’s governments are able to make the sort of sweeping changes necessary to ensure our survival, and whether their intentions are pure or not (and for the most part, they’re not), it is good to see that most major polluters finally have decided they have a dog in the fight.


COVID-19 presents the primary danger to climate action. With over 102 million cases and 2.2 million deaths at the time of writing, as well as numerous national lockdowns and market panic across the world, the economic and human costs of Covid have been enormous. The management consultancy firm McKinsey predicts that sectors such as food, transport, manufacturing and entertainment may not recover to 2019 level contributions to GDP before 2025 and large numbers of small businesses will not recover at all. This lack of revenue for governments will be further exacerbated by the need to pay for pandemic relief plans, such as America’s recently passed third stimulus bill worth $900 billion. Indeed, America alone is paying nearly a fifth of their 2019 GDP in Covid relief, and they are on the lower end of the scale. Whilst politicians seem hellbent on funnelling money to the wrong institutions (big banks over the unemployed, for example), it is undeniable that huge masses of money are still being spent and this will fit poorly with the loss of tax revenue that will undoubtedly follow. It is clear from this dichotomy that national governments are going to have to make Covid recovery a primary concern for the policies of the coming years and it will capture nation- al and international attention in the same way the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis did. This is a problem for those concerned about climate policy, as they risk being pushed to one side and silenced if they cannot properly present climate action as integral to economic recovery.


However, there is still room for hope. Just as the economy has been destroyed, it must be rebuilt which means that now is the perfect time for activists and the environmentally concerned to push a progressive new industrial and economic agenda that can both cater to political concerns and provide meaningful action to protecting the climate. It is important that governments are persuaded to invest large amounts into emerging research and industry that provides cleaner and more sustainable alternatives to current options. Spending on more and better renewable energy, efficient and eco-friendly methods of transportation and research into reversing climate change will provide much needed assistance in numerous ways. These investments will lead to an influx of new businesses, which will mean more skilled, high-paying jobs and in turn more tax revenue and higher levels of economic growth. This will be music to the ears of national governments, and if climate-orientated policy can be presented as a solid economic platform, it is undoubtable that treasuries across the globe will leap at the opportunity.


Governments should raise the funds for these plans through levying new and more precise taxes against the worst emitters in a country, especially in places like America and Europe where some of the world’s worst polluting companies are situated. Whilst some environmental taxes do currently exist, they are not enough and need to be fundamentally restructured. Only 3% of environmental tax in Britain is related to pollution and almost half of environmental tax is paid not by big corporations but rather from regular households. By implementing new taxes designed specifically to target people based on what amount of the national carbon emissions they cause, governments will be able to very quickly raise large amounts of money for Covid recovery whilst also further providing an intense financial incentive for these companies to very rapidly diverge away from high emissions energy production.


Regardless of what happens, most world governments are going to enter 2021 desperately looking for economic stability and a return to a pre-Covid world. Rather than looking to the past, however, politicians need to be brave and to adopt radical economic plans. These may upset the old guard of business and political elite, but it is precisely those groups that have led us to many of the problems we face in modern society. Of course, politicians are not usually known for championing climate change which is why it is important for regular people to amplify the voices of the climate and environmental activists that have been calling for action for years. As protecting the environment becomes the war cry of international actors, we can hope to see more meaningful international co-operation. When combined with the opportunity that a post-Covid economic world presents, there are reasons to feel optimistic about the future of the world. But 2019 was proclaimed ‘the year of climate consciousness’ and 2020 ‘the year of climate action’ so perhaps it’s a little premature to declare 2021 ‘the year of the climate’ already.


Image - Unsplash - Markus Spiske