As of February 2021, COVID-19 has killed more than 2.2 million people around the world. The pandemic has changed the way we work, live, and socialize.
At the same time, 2020 also brought new reasons to be hopeful about climate change. With the election of Joe Biden as president, the United States is poised to resume a leading role on the issue. China committed to the ambitious goal of being carbon neutral by 2060. In 2021, the United Nations will gather in Scotland for another major summit on climate change. Of course, none of this guarantees that we’ll make progress, but the opportunities are there.
I expect to spend much of my time in 2021 talking with leaders around the world about both climate change and COVID-19. I will make the case to them that many of the lessons from the pandemic—and the values and principles that guide our approach to it—apply just as well to climate change.
Helping others is not just an act of altruism—it’s also in our self-interest. We all have reasons to get to zero and help others do it too. Temperatures will not stop rising in Texas unless emissions stop rising in India.
First, we need international cooperation. The phrase “we have to work together” is easy to dismiss as a cliché, but it’s true. When governments, researchers, and pharmaceutical companies worked together on COVID-19, the world made remarkable progress—for example, developing and testing vaccines in record time. And when we didn’t learn from each other and instead demonized other countries, or refused to accept that masks and social distancing slow the spread of the virus, we extended the misery.
The same is true for climate change. If rich countries worry only about lowering their own emissions and don’t consider that clean technologies need to be practical for everyone, we’ll never get to zero. In that sense, helping others is not just an act of altruism—it’s also in our self-interest. We all have reasons to get to zero and help others do it too. Temperatures will not stop rising in Texas unless emissions stop rising in India.
Second, we need to let science—actually, many different sciences—guide our efforts. In the case of COVID-19, we are looking to biology, virology, and pharmacology, as well as political science and economics—after all, deciding how to distribute vaccines equitably is an inherently political act. And just as epidemiology tells us about the risks of COVID-19 but not how to stop it, climate science tells us why we need to change course but not how to do it. For that, we must draw on engineering, physics, environmental science, economics, and more.
Third, our solutions should meet the needs of the people who are hardest hit. With COVID-19, the people who suffer most are the ones who have the fewest options—working from home, for example, or taking time off to care for themselves or their loved ones. And most of them are people of color and lower-income people.
In the United States, Black people and Latinx people are disproportionately likely to contract the coronavirus and to die from it. Black and Latinx students are also less likely to be able to attend school online than their white peers. Among recipients of Medicare, the COVID-19 death rate is four times higher for those who are poor. Closing these gaps will be key to controlling the virus in the United States.
Globally, COVID-19 has undone decades of progress on poverty and disease. As governments moved to deal with the pandemic, they had to pull people and money away from other priorities, including vaccination programs. A study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation found that in 2020, vaccination rates dropped to levels last seen in the 1990s. We lost 25 years of progress in about 25 weeks.
Rich nations, already generous in their giving for global health, will need to be even more generous to make up for this loss. The more they invest in strengthening health systems around the world, the more prepared we will be for the next pandemic.
In the same way, we need to plan for a just transition to a zero-emissions future. People in poor countries need help adjusting to a warmer world. And wealthier countries will need to acknowledge that the energy transition will be disruptive for the communities that rely on today’s energy systems: the places where coal mining is the main industry, where cement is made, steel is smelted, or cars are manufactured. In addition, many people have jobs that indirectly rely on those industries—when there is less coal and fuel to move around, there will be fewer jobs for truck drivers and railroad workers. A significant portion of the working-class economy will be affected, and there should be a transition plan in place for those communities.
Finally, we can do the things that will both rescue economies from the COVID-19 disaster and spark innovation to avoid a climate disaster. By investing in clean-energy research and development—R&D—governments can promote economic recovery that also helps reduce emissions. Although it’s true that R&D spending has its biggest impact over the long term, there’s also an immediate impact: This money creates jobs quickly. In 2018, the U.S. government’s investment in all sectors of research and development directly and indirectly supported more than 1.6 million jobs, producing $126 billion in income for workers and $39 billion in federal and state tax revenue.
R&D isn’t the only area where economic growth is connected to zero-carbon innovation. Governments can also help clean-energy companies grow by adopting policies that reduce the Green Premium and make it easier for green products to compete with their fossil-based competitors. And they can use funding from their COVID-19 relief packages for things such as expanding the use of renewables and building integrated electricity grids.
The year 2020 was a huge and tragic setback. But I am optimistic that we will get COVID-19 under control in 2021. And I’m optimistic that we’ll make real progress on climate change—because the world is more committed to solving this problem than it has ever been.
When the global economy went into severe recession in 2008, public support for action on climate change plummeted. People just couldn’t see how we could respond to both crises at the same time.
This time is different. Even though the pandemic has wrecked the global economy, support for action on climate change is just as high as it was in 2019. Our emissions, it seems, are no longer a problem that we’re willing to kick down the road.
The question now is this: What should we do with this momentum? To me, the answer is clear. We should spend the next decade focusing on the technologies, policies, and market structures that will put us on the path to eliminating greenhouse gases by 2050. It’s hard to think of a better response to a miserable 2020 than spending the next 10 years dedicating ourselves to this ambitious goal.
Bill Gates is an entrepreneur and philanthropist and a cofounder of Microsoft. He is a cochair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the founder of Breakthrough Energy. He is the author of How To Avoid a Climate Disaster, published February 16, 2021.
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