COVID-19 and the climate emergency
COVID-19 had a huge impact in 2020 not only on global public health and personal well-being, but also on society, economy, politics, and the environment. Approaches to contain the pandemic have already caused output declines across key industrial sectors in China’s manufacturing hubs by as much as 40 percent, just to cite one example. That is likely to have also cut a quarter or more of China’s greenhouse gas emissions since stringent strategies were enacted in February last year. The same can be said with the Philippines’ manufacturing industries and declines in their emissions of late.
From a strictly climate emergency perspective, these reductions are clearly not a bad thing; however, meaningful climate action requires addressing the emergency at its core: sustained, long-term structural changes, especially in terms of decarbonization. Rapidly replacing fossil fuels with sustainable and renewable energy resources is at the heart of climate action, since the energy sector has the lion’s share of global emissions.
The “success” of this year’s fleeting emissions decline could engender the misleading perception that emissions are falling in the longer-term, when in reality they are not. A pandemic-induced reduction in emissions will mean very little in the long run. The history of emissions rebound following the economic stimulus packages enacted to address the 2008 recession is a case in point.
Over the longer term, the Philippine government would need to provide economic stimulus to sectors that suffer from the impacts of the pandemic. One important approach is to fund features of the transition toward sustainability so that new jobs are created and, at the same time, the climate emergency is addressed. Helping pandemic-affected communities to recuperate and start the necessary shift toward a low-carbon future meets both their short- and long-term needs.
Public resources at this point have been focused on containing the pandemic. Although this focus is urgent and necessary, we must not be distracted from acting on the much more consequential climate crisis. The Philippine government had already lost the opportunity to contribute to the international climate negotiations when it did not send an official delegation to the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2019. As climate action is pushed onto the margins of public policy in this country, we are losing valuable resources to build the needed momentum for climate action.
Our collective experience of the threat of COVID-19 — and the sense of urgency to respond to it — could make it easier to find a similar urgency when responding to the climate crisis. In the Philippines, where climate threats feel immediate given our experiences with weather extremes, climate action should have already informed national politics. The differences are stark. There are no vested interests that benefit directly from endorsing inaction and apathy on COVID-19, the way the vast coal and oil industry does with the climate emergency.
Perhaps the pandemic will lead to sustainability transitions that could make Filipino societies more willing to act on the climate emergency in the long run. Recognizing our common interdependence — that every Filipino’s health is every Filipino’s business — could strengthen the understanding that the Filipino is compassionate and that the spirit of bayanihan is alive among us. Surrendering to the fact that sacrifices and restraints are necessary for both the common good and our personal well-
being could help increase the saliency of the huge and deep changes in government regulations and personal values necessary to address the climate emergency.
Maybe this is wishful thinking, but crises can also be used as springboards for such critical shifts.
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Laurence L. Delina ([email protected]), of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, is from South Cotabato.
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