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Environment Stumbling Between Pandemic and Invasion

Environment Stumbling Between Pandemic and Invasion

Sunday, 13 March, 2022 - 05:45
Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

The covid pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine are two overwhelming events that will mark the twenty-first century with their impacts and repercussions. This will not be limited to human loss and physical destruction and the unquestionable political and economic volatility, but will also affect everything related to the environment, climate and development agendas. Beyond politics, anyone who thinks that we can go back to “business as usual” before making radical changes in light of what happened, is mistaken.

The world had no sooner began its first steps towards recovery from the pandemic that infected some 500 million people and led to over six million covid-related deaths within two years as well as hampering production, business and normal life, before the brutal invasion of Ukraine began. The war threatens to finish off the blows the pandemic set in motion, ushering fatal blows in politics, the economy and the environment. The result is that adopting completely new approaches to dealing with the unprecedented situation of multiple and consecutive disasters has become inevitable. It will no longer be sufficient to make-do with slogans such as “green recovery” that signify using the exceptionally huge budgets allocated to recover from impacts of the pandemic in a way that contributes to protecting the environment and fighting climate change, while no serious achievements are realized. The transition remains slow, not commensurate with the enormity of the challenges, as is clear in energy, transportation and consumption policies in general.

Two years after billions started to be injected into recovery plans, polluting activities and industries are still attracting the bulk of investments. Whereas some countries set specific goals to switch to electrical vehicles and cleaner engines and fuels, airlines in many regions have continued to emit more emissions, by operating tens of thousands of ‘ghost flights’ during the covid ordeal to secure rights to their air slots. The paradox is that these airlines received tens of billions in subsidies, while the promises to cut on short haul flights within Europe in favor of fast electric trains remain unfulfilled wishes. It has been obvious that savage types of consumerism continued under the auspices of recovery funds, rather than efforts to rationalize consumption. The most prominent evidence of this is that the consumption of natural gas in Europe increased substantially last year – despite the significant rise in prices – and the fact that 40 percent of it is imported from Russia. It would have been more useful to take immediate measures to reduce consumption, instead of encouraging wasteful patterns by heavily subsidizing gas prices.

The invasion and its aftermath also reminded Europe of the danger of relying heavily on one external source of energy, governed by geopolitical conflicts. Had it not been for the stability of oil and gas supplies from Arab producing countries, the calamity would have been greater and more ferocious.

In addition to Russian gas, people in many parts of the world came to discover that their countries depend largely on wheat imported from Ukraine, which has raised serious concerns about shortages. The panic reached several Arab countries, which import most of their wheat from Ukraine, forcing them to seek other sources, if available, and at high prices. This brought food security to the forefront, a challenge that has been repeatedly neglected even though it is no less important than national security. A report issued by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) in 2014 on the challenges and opportunities facing food security in Arab countries found that they depend on imports to meet most of their basic food needs, while these countries could achieve self-sufficiency in grains – especially wheat – if they modernized and expanded this sector and boosted regional cooperation.

The nuclear threat, in situations of both peace and war, may be one of the most significant challenges that the invasion of Ukraine put on the table. The fear of nuclear calamities was revived with the Russian occupation of the Chernobyl site, where the remnant of the nuclear power plant that caused the world’s worst radioactive disaster in 1986 is located, and the shelling of the Zaporizhia site, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. However, the mere threat of using nuclear weapons remains the most terrifying facet of this aggression, especially considering the threat comes from Russia, which possesses the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. This certainly gives it more weight than the rhetoric nuclear threat of Saddam Hussein decades ago. It now became evident that all the slogans on sustainable development and green economy may disintegrate at any moment, as long as the nuclear threat exists.

On the bright side, the horrors of the invasion may open the door to a true green shift, more than the pandemic could do. The live images of human casualties, physical destruction and displacement are more shocking than microscopic images of viruses. This will not only increase popular pressure against wars, especially in terms of banning nuclear weapons, but will also put food and energy security at the top of the national agendas, because the invasion proved that this kind of security cannot be readily bought with money. And people will be more prepared to accept, albeit reluctantly, that the quality of life can be enhanced by rationalizing consumption, rather than accepting greed as a given legacy.

However, whatever limits on consumption can be applied, they will not fill the energy gap caused by the excessive dependence on Russian gas, especially in Europe, because other external sources to meet essential needs are not readily available. Some countries may have to continue generating electricity from coal plants that were on schedule to shut down, and even to reopen ones that had been already out of operation. It is likely that some countries will reconsider previous decisions to stop nuclear power plants, at least by extending the period of operation of those that still exist. Countries will also look for a variety of safer sources in the future.

Undoubtedly, the most direct impact of the invasion on climate policies will be to adjust priorities, and accept that setbacks in de-carbonization are inevitable. This will result in a temporary delay in implementing commitments to reduce carbon emissions and financing the transition to cleaner energy. But the renewed panic over the political subjugation of Russian gas will, in turn, accelerate investments in efficiency and renewable energy, mainly to diversify and enhance dependence on domestic resources. This will not be limited to energy, as countries will reconsider their excessive dependence on importing essential products, especially from China, in anticipation of being held hostage in the event of any political conflict. It is evident that switching to local production, while reducing transcontinental transport and limiting consumption, will lead to a reduction in emissions.

A friend of mine residing in Europe has managed in the past two weeks to reduce his gas consumption by half, by making simple adjustments to enhance thermal efficiency, and also by wearing thick, warm clothes instead of walking around the house in light outfits. My friend, a staunch advocate of consumerism who previously refused to accept to do this for environmental reasons, confided that he, along with many of his relatives and neighbors, are implementing these and other measures today as a political statement, to reduce the import of Russian natural gas. But when they discover the benefits of sustainable consumption and get used to it, they will discover also that this is as good to the environment and the economy as it is for national security.

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