Economic growth without climate action is no longer feasible

April 28, 2020


Many would agree that the global lockdown resulting from coronavirus COVID-19 is giving the planet some breathing space, at least temporarily.

Industrial productivity has declined, flights and road transport have effectively halted, leading to greenhouse gas emissions sinking sharply. It is unlike what most of us have ever witnessed in our lifetime.

Satellite imagery from NASA and the European Space Agency shows that air quality has improved significantly since the pandemic began. Preliminary modelling in the European Union (EU) finds that their emissions may fall by 24.4 percent against their 2020 emissions target. In China, emissions plummeted to 200 million metric tonnes of CO2, representing a 25 percent average decline in February, compared with before the outbreak.

The downward trend is evidence that dramatic and rapid improvements to air quality and climate change are achievable. The UK-based think-tank, Carbon Brief, projects that this period of reduced global emissions  will mean a 5.5 percent cut by the end of 2020, if the pandemic trajectory continues.

There is renewed hope that the aims of the Paris Agreement, signed on Earth Day in 2016, can still be realized—cutting emissions in half by 2030, and achieving net zero by 2050.

But the gains for climate change and Earth Day 2020 come with brutal trade-offs—the hundreds of thousands of people who have died, psychological trauma associated with the escalation of domestic violence, household income insecurity, and fears for the health of frontline and essential workers, to name a few.

The pandemic caused oil demand to dip to an historic zero on 21 April. As countries scramble to re-start their economies, global targets to implement the Paris Agreement may be scuppered. This will come at great cost to the environment if there is a resurgence in demand for cheap oil.

As economies rebound, carbon emissions may return to pre-pandemic levels, or even exceed them, as was the case with the 2008-9 financial crisis, due largely to unaddressed structural dysfunctions in markets and financial systems. Not repeating the past requires countries to reflect on lessons learned, and to invest in systemic changes drawn from the Paris Agreement and the United Nations 2030 Agenda.

Achieving the SDGs requires overcoming a critical global financing gap of US$2.5-3 trillion per annum. Compounded by the pandemic, the economic recovery costs for a better world are almost incalculable.

However, the seeds for change have been sown.

The lockdown has inspired appreciation for the possibilities in previously polluted cityscapes, as we now see clean air, clear skies, and the return of nature. With this, humanity is being granted a glimpse of what our planet could be like if countries promote sustainable living.

People have also demonstrated great acts of solidarity, and have adopted new social values, such as learning to live less extravagantly, and reflecting on consumerism and sustainable lifestyles. Those fortunate enough to be able to consider their personal carbon footprints have reduced them by working from home, using online education for home-schooling, and making few shopping trips, eating out and travelling less.

More global cooperation is required to respect the shifts in social values, and to preserve the gains achieved for the climate prior to the pandemic. This means working harder for a low carbon economy.

UNDP, the leading development agency of the United Nations, works with partners in more than 100 countries through its Climate Promise, an extensive global climate change portfolio which helps countries simultaneously address the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.

UNDP also supports a number of countries through the Solar For Health initiative which has installed more than 900 solar systems in health centres and clinics in rural and underserved communities in countries such as Angola, Chad, Liberia, Libya, Namibia, Nepal, Sudan, South Sudan, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

In yester-year, caring for the planet was centred around the protection of species and ecosystems. This year, and for decades to come, the emphasis should be on fossil fuel divestment, scaling up renewable energy and working with nature to strengthen the planet.

Renewed ambition is required to rebuild the planet and improve the lives of people farthest behind in global development. This can start now by integrating climate action and nature-based solutions into stimulus packages, solidarity funds, and socio-economic COVID-19 responses.