In April 2020 the online world was stunned as they looked upon photos of a pollution free New Delhi and the Himalayas with photos of New Delhi’s India Gate war memorial and the snowy peaks of the Himalayas clearly visible in photos for the first time in decades.
As much of the world was confined to their homes in state-imposed lockdowns, the mass reduction of energy usage by the international community saw areas of the world that were previously choked with pollution, became clearly visible. The world in 2020 experienced its biggest annual drop in C02 emissions ever recorded with China recording a 25% reduction in its annual emissions by June 2020 due to factories closing to prevent the spreading of the covid 19 virus. In Delhi India the air quality index (AQI) levels fell from an average of 200 and a peak of 900 to a ranking of below 20. The World Health Organisation considers any AQI above 25 to be unsafe. These pictures gave hope to people around the world of how nature can recover if given a chance with greater pollution reductions.
This poses the question, has the covid 19 pandemic accelerated, halted or de-accelerated the momentum towards more ambitious national climate policies?
One of the biggest shifts in global climate policy has come from the United States. The election of Joe Biden in the 2020 United States Presidential election meant that the world had an economic global power that was going to push for more global cooperation on climate change action as compared to an openly climate change sceptic Donald Trump.
In April 2021 President Biden hosted a virtual climate summit on Earth Day requesting that states improve their previous Paris Agreement commitments. Some states responded positively to the US’s encouragement with the EU increasing their greenhouse pollution reduction target from 40% to 55% cut of 1990 pollution levels by 2030 and Japan almost doubling their greenhouse pollution reduction target from a 26% to 46% reduction of pollution from 2013 levels. Furthermore, a meeting with G7 leaders in mid- June 2021 resulted in all G7 members agreeing to phase out government support for new coal power plants by the end of 2021.
However, while these are much needed positive steps in the right direction to combating climate change, many have argued the commitments made by the G7 and the international community are underwhelming. Climate Action Network Director Catherine Pettengell stated at the conclusion of the G7 conference that the G7 had “failed to rise to the challenge” of agreeing on substantial climate commitments, especially as the participating G7 countries contribute a quarter of the world’s global emissions. This is backed up by statistics collected by The Guardian that outline the countries attending the G7 summit including India, Australia, South Korea and South Africa committed $US189 billion to support oil, gas and coal between January 2020 and March 2021 compared to $US147 billion on clean energy sources.
This points to a common trend that many countries have shifted back towards fossil fuel reliance rather than taking steps to improve their green infrastructure. While the world now has the world’s biggest economy looking to become a more active global player in reducing global carbon emissions, most countries have chosen to increase their reliance on fossil fuels during the pandemic. A UN analysis of the $US368 billion combined global government rescue funding during the covid 19 pandemic found only 18% can be considered green.
Canada, China, France, India and Russia are just some of the many countries that increased their support for fossil fuel industries during the covid 19 pandemic.
Australia is another state that has chosen to follow the route of a fossil fuel led recovery. The Australian government, following a 6-month investigation by a panel created by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, has pledged the equivalent of $US454 million to fund gas drilling expansions for exportation to trading partners in Southeast Asia. Australia resisted calls from trading partners and local activists to increase their carbon emissions target from 28% on 2005 levels by 2030 and will not commit to a net zero emissions target by 2050, a target a majority of top 20 global economies have committed to. Indonesia is another country to firm its commitment to fossil fuels, currently accounting for 75% of all planned coal power plant construction in Southeast Asia according to the Global Energy Monitor and is planning to increase overall local coal consumption to make up 30-40% of all SouthEast Asia energy production. They also resisted the chance to reduce coal plant production despite Vietnam, India and the Philippines all cancelling a number of planned Southeast Asian coal plant productions.
When it comes to two of the world’s largest carbon polluters, China and India have had mixed results when meeting or increasing their climate targets. China, while pledging to peak emissions by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2060, has continued to fund and build new coal plants in the country. The 25% emissions reduction by June 2020 caused by the covid 19 pandemic in the country has since been wiped out and returned to pre covid levels. Their Paris Agreement commitments have meant they are free to continue building new coal plants for the next 10 years. In contrast, India is currently on track to meet its Paris Agreement commitments made in 2015. The state is one of the world’s biggest polluters but as also having extreme levels of poverty, has been allowed a more modest pollution reduction target. This is to have 40% of its energy sector by 2030 be sourced from non-fossil fuel energy sources, which is According to Climate Tracker is being met, however greater pollution reductions by both countries will be needed for the world to prevent global temperature increases to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
So, what can countries do to ensure effective climate policies are implemented? There are multiple outlets of which states can engage in to become a more active global player to reduce the most severe impacts of climate change and assist developing nations reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.
The first is taking action at a national level. Denmark is one nation who is leading the way at reducing their emissions and increasing their investments into renewable energy sources. Conditions of the EU’s post pandemic recovery fund dictated that at least 37% of funding obtained by members must be spent on green initiatives. Denmark has gone above this and spent 60% of its allocated $US1.9 billion on green initiatives including green scientific research and transition of agriculture and tax reform that will promote greater investment from Danish wind power companies Orsted and Vestas. Furthermore, Denmark has increased its pollution reduction target to 70% by 2030, 15% higher than the EU’s goal.
Another potential method of showing leadership on climate change is to increase funding for the global Green Climate Fund. The Green Climate Fund was established at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference for developing nations to source funds to build up their renewable energy capabilities and to build and support agriculture and infrastructure that could withstand future climate impacts on their countries. The agreed upon $US100 billion contributions per annum target for developed nations to collectively invest into this fund by 2020 was the minimum amount needed for this fund to have an significant impact. As of 2018 the fund had only received only $US78 billion, a failure Climate Action executive director Tasneem Essop labelled after the June 2021 G7 conference as a missed opportunity and also called the G7 conference outcomes as “short sighted and unforgivable”. For developing nations in the aftermath of covid 19 to have a chance of rebuilding their economies with green initiatives and infrastructure, substantial contributions to this fund need to be made urgently. It is a method for states who wish to expand their climate change action beyond their own borders to contribute further to assist developing nations reduce their environmental footprint.
Lastly, a final initiative is signing up to the High Ambition Coalition. The Republic of the Marshall Islands, a nation whose very existence is challenged by the rising sea levels posed by climate change, has formed the High Ambition Coalition. This Coalition seeks a more ambitious commitment from its members to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a net zero global emissions pathway and a 5-year cycle to update commitments. This Coalition has created a pledge for states to commit to at least 60% stimulus spending during the covid 19 pandemic to go towards green industries. Currently only 9 countries are signatories to this pledge with the biggest economic signatory being the Netherlands. Signing this pledge will mean states such as the UK and the US who are announcing large nation emissions reductions packages will be bound to follow through with investing in green industries and will be answerable to the very countries whose lands are most at risk of being uninhabitable within decades.
As global leaders still collaborate on how best to handle the covid 19 pandemic and distribute vaccines around the world, the issues posed by climate change remain, slowly creeping up on a global community largely distracted. With the UN intergovernmental panel on Climate Change conservatively giving the planet 10 years to prevent irreversible destruction to the planet, global leaders are missing the opportunity to implement green transitions as part of their covid 19 responses that have the potential to respond to both threats to humanity. It can be done; just as urgent health measures and economic packages were implemented during the covid 19 pandemic to keep people safe and economically secure. The same resolve will need to be taken to prevent the climate crisis from becoming uncontrollable and bringing untold destruction on the global ecosystem and the world’s most vulnerable communities.