2020 is dead. Long live 2021! Why I’m still optimistic about climate action.

“Why 2020 is such a big year for sustainability”.

This was the title for an article I authored almost a year ago. Despite the wildfires that were raging across the Australian outback and news of a certain virus outbreak in the province of Wuhan, China, at the time, I was still cautiously optimistic for the year ahead and the promise of what a new decade of international climate action could achieve.

To say that last year failed to ‘live up to the hype’ would be somewhat of an understatement…

Back then, if you were to tell me that the whole world would enter a live action remake of Contagion for the remainder of the year, I’d probably have said something along the lines of:

“But the virus isn’t that dangerous, is it? Isn’t it just like the flu?”; or

“But the Chinese government have managed to contain the spread, haven’t they?”; or 

“Why are people eating pangolins?!”

I consider myself a pretty positive person with an optimistic outlook – but I’ll be honest, 2020 was just plain awful. Looking forward, now that we’ve all had a month of closure to recover from the monstrosity that was last year, let’s review where global sustainability stands in 2021 and what we need to do to resuscitate our response to climate change.  

The Pandemic’s Effects on the Planet

2020 was unprecedented, there’s no denying it. Face masks, hand sanitiser, social distancing; the spread of coronavirus dramatically changed our way of life. In fact, our activities changed so much that even our generations of CO2 emissions were affected. Due to significant falls in global energy demand and domestic and international travel, carbon emissions unexpectedly dropped by record 2.4 gigatons (Gt), representing 8% of our total annual CO2 emissions. The emission decreases from last year dwarf those resulting from any other seismic event of the 20th century, from the Great Depression and the global financial crisis of 2008 to the whole of World War II (see Figure 1 below).

Before coronavirus, nobody would’ve thought that implementing climate actions such as closing polluting industries and reducing air travel seemingly overnight could be possible. Yet in some ways, the lockdown provisions taken to reduce the spread of COVID 19 demonstrated how quickly measures like these can be taken when the need is urgent enough. As we quarantined ourselves, our skies became less polluted, our roads less congested, and the world as we knew it suddenly transformed.

Figure 1: Annual changes in global energy-related CO2 emissions, 1900-2020, IEA

“Well, at least less CO2 emissions is a positive that we can take away from 2020!”

Well, no. Unfortunately, this isn’t the silver lining that it sounds like. Yes, it’s true that last year’s disruptions surprisingly produced the amount of annual emission cuts we need if we’re to reach net-zero emission by 2050. But while momentarily shutting down our global economy and social interactions are necessary and effective methods of slowing the spread of coronavirus, nobody wants to see continuing lockdowns or social distancing measures for the foreseeable future.

As we recover and prepare for a post-pandemic future, we need to plan a response that gives us resilience against the current health crisis, while also preventing the acceleration of sustainability challenges in the future.

Coronavirus & Climate Change: Our Most Urgent Crises

New strains of the virus still present an imminent threat to millions of people around the world, but there is hope for us on the horizon. The gradual rollout of vaccination programmes will, in time, slowly reduce our vulnerability to COVID 19. But (luckily for us…), this isn’t the only global emergency that we’re currently facing.

As we deal with the outbreak of COVID 19, the devastating consequences of climate change haven’t gone anywhere. As I remarked at the beginning of last year, 2020 was supposed to be the start of serious climate action. But while governments and policymakers have justifiably raced to contain and curb growing infection rates, their sense of urgency and political will for climate action has unfortunately taken a back seat. If not addressed, this could lead to a reversal of last year’s global emissions reductions and result in an overall increase, as governments introduce recovery stimulus packages that prioritise rapid economic growth industrial outputs.  

Our fight against coronavirus is of paramount importance, but considering the resulting damages if left unchecked, so too is the fight against climate change. Aside from the catastrophic environmental devastation, climate change will also present a similar threat to public health and social stability in the future – with emergency situations occurring more frequently. If extreme weather events or the ranges of vector borne diseases increase under climate change scenarios, health systems will continually be placed under enormous strain due to increasing shock events, while the poorest and most vulnerable in society will bear the brunt of the impacts.

Aside from the catastrophic environmental devastation, climate change will also present a similar threat to public health and social stability in the future – with emergency situations occurring more frequently.

By now, you may be asking yourself:

“If emergency actions can be taken by governments to prevent the spread of coronavirus, why haven’t we seen the same response for climate change?”

The problem lies in something called hyperbolic discounting, otherwise known as ‘the Present Bias’. It’s a behavioural term used to describe human’s tendency to settle for short-term rewards now, rather than work towards preventing long-term costs in the future. When it comes the approaches taken to combat coronavirus and climate change respectively, we can see the effects of this trait very clearly. With COVID-19 and other health-related emergnecies, policy responses and mitigation efforts such as vaccinations and behavioural changes are rapidly developed because the consequences of inaction are immediately visible for all to see. But with climate change, our traditional approach has been vastly different. Because the effects of climate change will continue to get worse over a longer period, some people don’t recognise the clear link between the lack of climate action and the resulting apocalyptic scenario we’re left with.

When we think about how coronavirus has impacted our lives and what lies on the horizon if climate change isn’t met head on, we can’t afford to stand by and do nothing. With economic forecasts predicting the cost of inaction could range anywhere from $10 trillion to $50 trillion over the next 200 years, it’s clear that we literally can’t afford any idleness either. As we tackle the imminent dangers presented by coronavirus, we also need the same level of urgency when preventing dangerous levels of climate change. While we reel from the tragic effects of the current pandemic, if we don’t act on climate change, they will ultimately present a smaller-scaled example of the damages caused by sustainability-related challenges.      

Rebooting the Green Recovery

With the emissions drop of 2020 and COP 26, the crucial climate summit to deliver action on the Paris Agreement happening in Glasgow this November, we have a once in a generation opportunity to rally others together and kick-start real climate action. With studies showing that green stimulus plans can stimulate economic growth, while delivering a higher rate of return for government spending in both the short and long term, it’s clear we need to start laying the groundwork for an economic recovery that prioritises public health, job security, and of course the transition towards sustainable development. And I’m not the only one out there who thinks the same way.   

The UK’s sustainability leaders, political parties, and top 200 Business Leaders are calling the government to ‘build back better’ and commit towards implementing a green recovery. A call for climate action after coronavirus is the people’s will as well. Climate Assembly UK, a citizen body representing the attitudes on climate change held by the UK’s population, has urged for “strong government leadership and cross-party cooperation” to build a long-term, phased transition towards climate progress.

There’s evidence, public demand, and even political will for a green recovery for COVID-19. Now, all that’s left is for us to do is to get to work.

…we have a once in a generation opportunity to rally others together and kick-start real climate action.

Why I'm Optimistic for 2021

Given everything that’s happened since the last article I wrote, I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on whether I still consider myself an optimistic person. With the global pandemic still ongoing and new case numbers remaining high, it’s easy to see why many of us are struggling and finding things financially, physically and emotionally hard right now.

But when it comes to sustainable development, I’m still excited about our future. It may be a long road ahead, but from seeing how the world pulled together to help and support one another during the pandemic, I’m hopeful that we come together again to act on climate change. And with the US reaffirming its commitment to the Paris Agreement and a wave of executive orders from the Biden Administration aimed to address the effects of climate change all occurring in the last fortnight, I think it’s fair to say that things are looking up for 2021.

2020 is dead. Long live 2021.

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Pete Snow | Co-Founder and Head of Strategy
Pete’s passion for all things green and eco-friendly has driven his work with sustainability projects; with focuses ranging from turtles to turnover. With a background in international environmental policy and diverse experience within the corporate sustainability field, Pete is OMBRA’s lead strategist and loves it when a plan comes together.
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