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A Vaccine for Covid-19, But What About Climate Change?

A Vaccine for Covid-19, But What About Climate Change?

Sunday, 27 December, 2020 - 05:15
Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

It is hoped that 2021 will enter history as the year that witnessed victory over the most grave health calamity of our times. Can we also hope to end the year with serious international climate action at the Glasgow Climate Summit in November? What can be said for sure is that the road to both wins will greatly differ: whereas vaccines might prove conclusive in the battle against the coronavirus, there is no magic fix for the painstaking fight against climate change.


The world welcomes 2021 with a mix of anguish and optimism. Far from its continuing horrific health effects, which hit nearly 100 million people and led to the death of more than 1.5 million in one year, the pandemic knocked the global economy and led hundreds of millions to lose their jobs. The successful development of effective vaccines and the beginning of widespread distribution signaled the first step on the road to recovery. Ultimately, the human will to survive and advance must prevail.


The gradual relief from social and economic restrictions imposed by the pandemic will bring back to the forefront the greatest challenge currently facing humanity, namely climate change. 2021 will witness the most significant climate summit after Paris in 2015, which resulted in a landmark agreement to reduce carbon emissions. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson predicted that 2021 will be a crucial year for climate action, and he is right about that for several reasons. The next summit will be the first opportunity to review the national voluntary commitments that have been pledged under the Paris Agreement. It also comes directly after the corona pandemic, in which the economic crisis was tackled by the allocation of huge budgets worth trillions of dollars for recovery plans.


The past few years have witnessed some of the most prominent scientific discoveries that unequivocally confirmed the exacerbation of the dangers of climate change. This led to calls for accelerating the pace of reducing carbon emissions to reach "zero carbon" before 2050. Science also confirmed the threshold of increase in temperature should be reduced from 2 degrees Celsius, as agreed in Paris, to 1.5. However, the most important event that will mark the upcoming climate summit is the change in leadership in the United States.


Outgoing president Donald Trump adopted brutal policies that canceled many of the restrictions to protect the environment at the national level, and he took the United States out of the Paris climate agreement under the pretext of boosting USA GDP and corporate profits. At home, the Trump administration annulled or diluted around 100 environmental laws, easing restrictions on seabed exploration, relaxing water pollution standards and emissions from power plants and air pollution levels in oil refineries, as well as allowing exploration and the passage of oil and gas pipelines in protected areas.


President-elect Joe Biden explicitly declared in his campaign that bringing the United States back to the Paris Agreement would be at the top of his agenda, in addition to reactivating national environmental laws. Among the most prominent environmental issues that Biden committed to at the national level was the re-imposition of high emission standards on car manufacturers, in terms of fuel efficiency and emissions, promoting electric cars through supporting research and adequate tax incentives, expanding the deployment of renewable energy, and reducing emissions from solid waste landfills. This calls for reducing the generation of waste from the source, re-use and recycling, leading to the reduction of waste reaching landfills, alongside imposing strict restrictions on methane emissions from oil and gas operations.


Based on Biden’s unprecedented promises, the United States is expected to play a leading role in formulating and activating global climate action. This will not be limited to reducing carbon emissions in a manner that ensures that global warming does not exceed the 1.5 degrees, but rather contributing fair share to the $100 billion fund, to be dispersed annually between 2020 and 2030, to help developing countries reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change.


Even if paid annually in full, the $100 billion pledge remains a fraction of what is required for urgent climate action. But the trillions that have been allocated around the world for economic recovery plans from coronavirus may provide a climate outlet as well, by directing financial support towards economic programs that mitigate climate change. The ideal solution is to increase job opportunities in parallel with reducing pollution, preserving the environment and cutting carbon emissions. This is a possible goal, but it requires a political will.


Joe Biden announced the allocation of hundreds of billions to improve the efficiency of buildings in the United States, especially through renovations that apply thermal insulation and switch to renewable energy, thus reducing energy consumption and cutting emissions. This is a program that, with appropriate support, can be rolled out in any country around the world. The bulk of the recovery funds could also be allocated to increasing the share of renewable energy and reducing emissions from transportation, and developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) and reuse programs, as discussed by the G20 summit in Riyadh. A portion of the recovery funds could go towards better management of forests, seas and protected areas, all of which help sequester carbon. Among potential programs worth funding is waste management by adopting the principle of reduction, reuse and recycling, and treating wastewater for reuse so that not a single drop is wasted. Applying cleaner production patterns, which reduce pollution and waste, will ensure that we produce what we need in a better quality, yet using fewer raw materials. All these programs create jobs that are several folds more than those needed by traditional economic activities, thereby aiding economic recovery while preserving a healthy environment and curbing climate change.


When the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015, many considered it weak and pointless, as it was limited to voluntary commitments to reduce emissions. However, it pioneered in agreeing on commitments from all countries to reduce carbon emissions, even if based on voluntary national pledges accompanied by periodic reviews. It also set a mechanism to help poor countries implement their commitments, through financial and technological support. This was a great achievement, according to the available data and circumstances at that time. Today, we are in a new era governed by the effects of the corona pandemic and its consequences, the expected radical change in USA policy, in addition to the irrefutable scientific facts that have emerged in the last five years and the continuous reduction in the costs of low-carbon technologies, such as efficiency tools and the production of electricity from sun and wind.


On the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement on December 12th, the Climate Ambition Summit was held virtually, with the participation of 75 heads of state, alongside leaders of international organizations, business and civil society organizations. The goal was to make new pledges to adapt and reduce emissions. In their speeches, 45 heads of state made new national commitments to reduce emissions, 24 countries set closer dates for reaching the zero carbon target, and 20 countries introduced new adaptation plans. Thus, the number of countries that have committed to reducing carbon emissions to zero before 2050 exceeded the threshold of 70, with about 80 other countries expected to make similar commitments in the near future. Thousands of international businesses have voluntarily committed themselves to this goal. All this was unimaginable when the Paris summit was held five years ago.


It was striking that Arabs were almost absent from the Climate Ambition Summit. The Iraqi president was the only Arab participant, and his statement was full of good intentions but lacking in substance. In contrast, the Israeli prime minister took advantage of the international forum to make new climate pledges and lay down plans. Arabs lost another opportunity to present themselves as true partners in the global endeavors to deal with climate change.


It is hoped that 2021 will be the year of recovery from coronavirus, as well as that of a radical shift in global climate action. Although ultimate climate pledges will have to wait until the Glasgow Climate Summit in November 2021, major and swift steps are needed ahead of that date, to reflect the urgency of the situation. Before then, more countries are expected to announce halting the production and sale of cars running on gasoline and diesel before 2035, as a necessary step to reduce emissions. Many companies will turn to production practices and methods that reduce carbon emissions, leading to their complete elimination, in order to secure a place for themselves within the new green economy. Climate finance will come from an unexpected source, the corona recovery funds. While countries squabbled at the Paris summit on how to distribute the burden of providing $100 billion annually to help poor countries deal with climate change, 10 to 20 trillion dollars – about 20 times the total amount pledged to the Climate Fund over a ten-year period – materialized as contributions to the pandemic recovery plans. Many countries, led by the European Union, have announced plans to direct a big portion of these funds towards investments in green economy. What is certain is that a Biden-led America will follow suit in this regard.


Until the world meets at the Glasgow summit, Arabs must prepare to participate actively in serious action towards the planet's recovery from environmental degradation, and take climate change seriously. Only actions can prove how honest Arab leaders’ intentions are.


Secretary General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED)


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