The U.S., the U.K. and Brazil have been “nothing but irresponsible” in their isolationist approaches to the coronavirus crisis, and such stances will weaken the global response to climate change, climate action advocate Christiana Figueres has said. At the same time, she claimed, the pandemic had created an opportunity to “reinvent” the economy in a way that valued sustainable outcomes over growth.
Figueres, the former UN Executive Secretary for Climate Change, made the comments yesterday to an online audience at the U.K.’s Hay Festival of Literature and Arts, which this year is being held digitally because of the ongoing coronavirus lockdown.
“There is one responsibility that governments everywhere have, and that is to protect their citizens,” Figueres said, referring to the huge death tolls from COVID-19 seen in Britain and America. On the other hand, she said, “those countries that have managed to protect their citizens from the worst of COVID-19 have done their job, and they are probably the ones who are doing a better job on climate change.” Figueres singled out Germany, Iceland, Finland, New Zealand and Denmark as countries that in her view had dealt effectively with the pandemic threat.
Speaking to Tom Rivett-Carnac, a strategist for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Figueres stressed the need for more international cooperation to combat climate change, but that the coronavirus pandemic had the power to force countries to work together.
The coronavirus recovery was “a huge forced collaboration exercise, because it’s the only way through this,” she said. “Those countries that want to exempt themselves and be isolationist about it may have very difficult measures to deal with, because borders may not be open to their citizens.”
Figueres and Rivett-Carnac discussed the necessity for the global community to reduce cumulative emissions by 7.5% per year by 2030, in order to stay on track with the recommended Paris Agreement target of restricting global warming to 1.5 Celsius by 2100. In order to achieve this, they said, the $15-20 trillion dollars of funding so far earmarked for the global economic recovery from the pandemic would need to support a coherent strategy of decarbonization, instead of being funnelled into a strategy of returning the world to the way it was prior to the pandemic.
“If that money is put into high carbon assets … then there is no way that any [separate] policies and measures on decarbonizing the economy could possibly reach the impact that those $20 trillion are going to have because they will dwarf any efforts on climate change,” Figueres said. That sort of money, she believed, “will define the contours of the global economy for at least the [following] decade.”
Tom Rivett-Carnac, who along with Figueres co-authored The Future We Choose, a book that explores a global response on climate action, said in his view the 2020s were “the most consequential decade in human history,” in which the world would need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50%, defining the climate outcomes for the rest of the 21st century.
Figueres hailed efforts in Europe by governments and private companies to urge the EU to make the European Green Deal a cornerstone of any recovery measures, and highlighted Spain’s recent move to draft a law to ban all new hydrocarbon projects in an effort to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.
Figueres said that while business leaders needed to get productivity levels back to where they were before the COVID-19 crisis, they also understood that “COVID is not going to divert either the resources or the attention to climate, but rather to make those solutions converge.” The financial sector, she said, is on the same path, with firms such as Blackrock
However, Rivett-Carnac warned that there are signs a recovery could indeed be on the path to “business as usual,” noting that emissions in China were now “worse or as bad as” those seen prior to the pandemic. He suggested that to adequately respond to the climate challenge, the fundamental objectives of economies would need to change. “We’ve ended up with a situation where the goal of economics is more GDP,” he said. “That’s just crazy, because we create a structure to our economic system that then drives its own outcomes.”
The single objective of GDP growth, he claimed, was not conducive to outcomes that promoted health, well-being or sustainability. Instead, he said, “the goals of humanity need to be determined by great collective processes that are based on our values.” Rivett-Carnac said the closest thing that humanity had to a shared statement of goals were the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement.
Figueres agreed. “For years we have structured our economic process according to a linear trajectory in which we extract, we use and we discard. That is something that we can no longer afford to do.” Instead, she said, economies should move from “extract, use and discard” to a “circular economy,” whereby the end goal was not to increase economic output, but rather to regenerate resources.
The coronavirus pandemic had created conditions in which people were less resistant to change, Figueres added, and as a result humanity had an opportunity to “reinvent the way we do what we do,” from working habits and travel habits to communication and food production. “We’ve never seen anything like this,” she said, “so we shouldn’t let that opportunity go to waste.”
Rivett-Carnac said that while the scale of the responsibility could seem daunting, the global community should face the challenge with optimism. “Everywhere we look we see systems transforming; we see people stepping up and doing things they didn’t think they could do,” he said. “This is a great adventure. We can do this in the next 10 years. No one else is going to.”
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