PETER SAINSBURY. Sunday environmental round up, 29 March 2020

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. How will a coronavirus-led recession affect CO2 emissions? Will health improve from cleaner air with fewer vehicles on the road? How can governments use stimulus packages to protect the vulnerable and hasten the transition to a low carbon, environmentally sustainable, just world? And good news for Torres Strait Islanders: $25m to cope with sea level rise.

A few weeks ago a reader politely suggested that I leaven my servings of bad news at breakfast, lunch and dinner with the occasional good news story. The truth is, dear reader, that I really don’t see much unequivocally good environmental news. What there is usually relates to something that is progressing in the right direction but far far too slowly to prevent a catastrophe (the growth of renewable, for instance) or to some much-abused species that has been temporarily saved from oblivion. However, I suppose we could say that news that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions did not increase during 2019 is relatively good, and we can hope that unlike 2013-16 it isn’t a false dawn. But, sorry reader, just can’t help myself, I would ask you to note two caveats to my glee: emissions increased in the developing economies, mainly in Asia, which are the ones that need access to more energy in the coming years; and the flat line between 2018 and 2019 was due to reduced emissions only in the electricity generating sector.

The financial pundits seem confident that coronavirus will spark a global economic recession. If so, will carbon dioxide emissions fall? Logically, yes, and current evidence from China is that emissions fell about 25% in the first couple of months of 2020, but past experience indicates that recession-related falls are only temporary, with no real change to the shape of the graph.

The crucial question though is whether the big bucks that are being thrown by governments around the world at preventing a recession can be directed to, for example, forcing the pace of the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, preventing further degradation of land and marine ecosystems and making the world’s agricultural and transport systems more environmentally sustainable. Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, recently stated: ‘Large-scale investment to boost the development, deployment and integration of clean energy technologies – such as solar, wind, hydrogen, batteries and carbon capture (CCUS) – should be a central part of governments’ plans because it will bring the twin benefits of stimulating economies and accelerating clean energy transitions.’ Interesting development for an organisation that started in 1974 as a club of elite nations with a strong interest in fossil fuels.

It seems Mr Birol is on the money though. According to New Climate Economy, low carbon climate-resilient growth can provide lasting economic and social benefits including US$26 trillion in net global economic benefits between now and 2030 compared with business-as-usual and the creation of 65 million low carbon jobs by 2030. The last thing that is needed is pouring public money into high carbon, environmentally destructive infrastructure projects (particularly any that increase air pollution) just because the plans for them are already sitting on the minister’s shelf. Sensible government investments will also send the right message to private investors.

The plummeting of air pollution when there are fewer vehicles on the roads is well demonstrated in these city maps from the USA. Forget La La Land rush-hour snarl ups, coronavirus has emptied LA’s freeways.  The reduced air pollution will have tremendous health benefits of course, but a recession will probably have adverse health consequences such as more suicides and more poverty and its related health problems. I am not agreeing with Trump that we should just let coronavirus run wild but there is an empirical question to be answered at some stage: how do the health effects of an uncontrolled coronavirus epidemic compare with those of an economic recession?

And talking of poor and disadvantaged people, we have to remember that they suffer in multiple ways in all this: they reap the least of society’s benefits in the good times; they suffer the most during a recession; and they are the biggest and earliest victims of climate change, having done the least to cause the problem. Wise governments will ensure that their stimulus packages are used both to protect existing disadvantaged people and communities and to  invest in programs that ensure a just transition to a green economy.

Finally, yes, a bit of good news. The Australian and Queensland governments have promised $25 million to help Torres Strait Islanders implement adaptations needed to cope with rising sea levels: building sea walls, repairing jetties and re-establishing ferry services. This follows the initiation of a complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee by a group of Islanders alleging that Australian government inaction on climate change violates their human rights. The Islanders want greater climate action from the government to protect their homes and funds for coastal defences.

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Peter Sainsbury is a retired public health worker with a long interest in social policy, particularly social justice, and now focusing on climate change and environmental sustainability. He is extremely pessimistic about the world avoiding catastrophic global warming.

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5 Responses to PETER SAINSBURY. Sunday environmental round up, 29 March 2020

  1. Peter Farley says:

    It is of course an unanswerable question but there is some hope.
    1. One of the small mercies is that power systems remain stable as the renewable shares reach unprecedented levels, because renewables keep going while coal and gas fall, so the arguments that we cannot absorb more wind and solar become moot. For example in the last financial year on the NEM, wind and solar provided 90% of the energy that brown coal provided. In the last 7 days it has been 120%. Similarly in Germany output from coal plants in March was 20.2% of production. In 2018 it was 38.7%
    2. The combination of the fires both here and in the Northern Hemisphere and now the clean air and even water in Venetian canals as well as the fragility of society will probably make many people realise that the economy is subsidiary to society and that to the environment.
    3. As the economy slowly restarts it will be easier to restart wind and solar projects than large fossil fuel projects with their very complicated supply chains so the dominance of renewables in the new builds will be even more reinforced.
    4. E meetings, E health and E Education will prove to be quite sticky so I suspect that even after the rest of the economy recovers travel emissions will stay down for a long time and the projected growth of air traffic will be delayed about 4-5 years

  2. Gavin O'Brien says:

    Peter,
    I have been wondering what impact the Corona Virus induced recession will have on the “elephant in the room”; Climate Change. I agree with your premise that it will just temporarily reduce the temperature increase as CO2 emissions drop for a while. I am not sure it will show up very clearly in this year’s data but any reduction is better than none.
    I would love to believe that governments and the powers behind them will grasp the possibility of a renewables led recovery but, even if I was a betting man; and I am not, I would not be putting any money on it. By the way a friend showed me a new app. he has on his mobile phone from a betting company which allows people to bet on the predicted temperature in their location for the following day. He asked whether one should place a bet. My answer; a definite no! Seems without sports to bet on, they have turned to the weather!

    Gavin A. O’Brien (FRMetS)

    • Hi Gavin, you are clearly a nuanced individual. Reading P&I demonstrates this. I agree with your analysis that climate change amelioration during C19 will be temporary. The opportunity exists, while pollies are actually listening to scientists, to lever off this temporary withdrawal from G bubbles and implement real positive change. That Oz IT Billionaire had many good ideas. At the beginning of this crisis I stated to many mates that adoption of online and IT solutions to health would progress five years in weeks. There are wider applications as well. The Billionaire raised 3-D printing in large regional centres that would benefit reduction of transport costs and stimulate much needed regional employment.

      I agree with your focus on CO2 levels. Please consider an even worse issue of NO2 et al and diesel buses or trucks. Many Chinese cities adopted strategies to convert all municipal buses to electric. I suspect Wuhan was one (fact checker required). The C19 crisis may permit a fraction of the idle diesel trucks to be converted to electric? It may utilise spare capacity and get that portion of the workforce back, within social distancing guidelines. More than one plus, and then include mental health advantages et al.

      Let me share a C19 strategy. The only reason I leave the house is to go shopping. I left hospital on Friday Mar 13 and placed an online order with a national supermarket chain at home that afternoon. That entity contacted me to cancel my order 4/5 days later. Therefore, after serious spinal surgery I was required to shop and this is my significant high risk event. The behaviours by mostly younger folk were amazing. I submit that all supermarkets engage a strategy that shoppers can only travel down an isle in one direction. The number of ignorants that invaded my personal space, 1.5 metres guidelines, and some even knocked into me during c-19 was breathtaking given that I was wearing a neck support collar. In summary, a high risk event accentuated by the more narcissistic or uncaring elements of our society. Cheers Geoff

  3. Peter Johnstone says:

    Peter Sainsbury, you observe that “there is an empirical question to be answered at some stage: how do the health effects of an uncontrolled coronavirus epidemic compare with those of an economic recession?” Our PM speaks as if the health Covid-19 arguments are subordinate to the economic arguments without identifying or trying to answer this critical question. This is clearly not a binary choice and the complexities need to be addressed now, to inform the policy choices being faced now. I would suggest that the answer lies in an acceptance that the economy serves society, and there are clear limits to the cost to society in seeking to ‘save’ the economy. Your question is perhaps not so empirical in seeking to identify the trade-off which clearly cannot accept the extreme of seeking herd immunity by simplistic survival of the fittest. I think we need that analysis urgently and that must not be left to the economic rationalists or the health professionals – careful consideration by environmentalists, ethicists, and indeed our elected representatives, is critical.

  4. John Boyd says:

    You mean they actually acknowledge that sea levels are rising?!

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