The world needs change more than ever. Sustainable development and green growth are now key issues on the global agenda, but the actions taken by the international community to pursue related environmental objectives have remained restrained and often lack sufficient political will. Could the COVID-19 pandemic provide the necessary impetus for a full-scale green transformation?
Remarkable Stage of Development
The COVID-19 pandemic found humanity at a remarkable stage of development: we are witnessing accelerating progress in science, medicine and technology, and the volume of the world economy continues to grow and is approaching $90 trillion per year, but global economic growth and technological advances have not necessarily led to overall progress. The idea of the welfare state is in crisis, social and economic inequality persists, and about 9% of the world’s population live in extreme poverty, earning less than $ 1.90 per day. The environment continues to deteriorate, 75% of the ice-free land surface has undergone changes, we are witnessing an accelerating loss of biodiversity, and vertebrate populations have declined by 68% since the 1970s. The effects of climate change are increasingly evident: the past four years were the hottest ever recorded, the frequency and severity of extreme weather is increasing, the accelerated melting of glaciers, polar ice and permafrost continues, the sea level is rising, and changes in many terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems have been recorded. Moreover, according to IPCC estimates, the processes launched as a result of anthropogenic emissions will continue to affect the climate system for hundreds or even thousands of years. In the context of the interconnection and interdependence of global challenges, environmental problems and climate change will increasingly affect many economic spheres, such as, for example, food security, energy and healthcare, which will inevitably affect the stability of economies and nation states.
Despite the shift in the focus of attention of the international community towards the fight against the pandemic, environmental and climate issues continue to take root in the global agenda. In the Global Risks 2021 report of the World Economic Forum, infectious diseases expectedly bumped climate change into second place in the ranking of the most significant risks in terms of potential impact; both rank ahead of weapons of mass destruction. However, in the list of top risks by likelihood, potential environmental calamities feature in the first three lines: “extreme weather,” “climate action failure,” and “human environmental damage.” “Biodiversity loss” ranks fourth, after infectious diseases.
Perhaps it is the COVID-19 pandemic that could become the starting point for a more active and decisive search for new solutions to global environmental problems. In the autumn of 2020, Ipsos conducted a survey for the World Economic Forum, which covered more than 21 thousand people from 27 countries throughout the world, which showed that 86% of respondents would like the world to change significantly and become more sustainable and fair, and not return to what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, the desire for change is most clearly observable in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.
Despite a rather modest selection, this study indicates a readiness for changes, which will have to affect states, societies and markets in the most tangible way in order to achieve the desired effect, especially in the environmental sphere, changing the very basis of interaction between people and nature.
Although the idea of transitioning to a new development paradigm started being discussed a long time ago, the changes that have been addressed are so large-scale that they have spawned a whole new direction in scientific and political thought, which is now being called the “green transformation.” At the same time, the green transformation seems to be the first transformation in the history of mankind, which must be achieved purposefully and has, perhaps, a slightly blurred, but quite understandable deadline. It is noteworthy, however, that there are many different takes on how to implement the green transformation itself. Attitudes towards the endeavour range from deep commitment (among those who believe ethical norms apply to all living things and have expressed a desire to abandon anthropocentricity) to humanitarian (where pursuing “green” change stems from human needs); the green transformation has different approaches. In other words, a green transformation can imply both a process of structural change that would bring the economy back within the limits of planetary environmental sustainability, as well as include issues of social justice. Moreover, these approaches vary from state to state and from industry to industry, which ultimately allows us to consider “greening” not as some final point in the future, but as a process during which interaction and competition between different approaches and actors will take place, far from a disequilibrium of capabilities and resources. In the current situation, this confrontation is acquiring special relevance, since it is not just about approaches to green transformation, but about the desire of states to include comparable measures in packages to overcome the crisis.
The pandemic fell on a critical year for the Paris Climate Agreement, when the parties were required to update their Nationally Determined Contributions until 2030, as well as to present long-term strategies to achieve zero emissions by 2050, but the meeting of the parties was postponed to 2021. It seems that if these plans are not ambitious enough, measures to restore economies after the crisis will not include tangible reductions in emissions, and the Glasgow Agreement meeting of the parties in 2021 will not bring a solution to the long-standing problem of climate finance and Article 6 of the Agreement. The prospects for keeping global warming at 1.5° C will begin to melt as rapidly as the ice in the Arctic.
The first months of the lockdown brought numerous media reports about nature cleansing itself. Indeed, the pandemic has brought some positive environmental effects: in the first half of 2020, due to the economy’s response to the pandemic, greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 9%. This is the percentage of decline required each year over the next decade to limit global warming to 1.5° C.
However, as the experience of the 2008-2009 global financial crisis has shown, in a number of OECD countries the presence of green incentives in economic recovery packages did not lead to a significant green shift in public spending, or to a significant improvement of the environment. Greenhouse gas emissions soon returned to their pre-crisis levels. In other words, these measures were not transformational, and the impulse of the global financial crisis to change the environment looked “wasted”.
That is why, at the moment, considerable attention is being paid to how the states and the economy will emerge from the crisis. It is clear that a collective effort is needed to prevent the repetition of mistakes that have already been made, and to provide for the transition to a low-carbon economy. To date, only four of the world’s largest economies have put together recovery packages that will bring net environmental benefits, and in 15 of the G20 countries, they will result in new agendas or exacerbate negative environmental impacts.
Among the countries with promising measures, South Korea and Canada rank first, while the already-recognised leader in environmental policy, the European Union has proposed the most environmentally holistic recovery programme — Next generation EU, which, among other things, encourages member states to align their recovery programmes with the principle of zero harm to the environment. It is likely that these countries will ultimately benefit from their long-term investments and better adapt to the coming climate change, for which, unfortunately, there is no vaccine.