Will the pandemic help tackle climate change?. By Gary Rynhart, Specialist in employers’ activities.

News | 21 July 2021
Have the clear skies and fresh air induced by COVID 19 lockdowns helped reach a tipping point on action to alleviate the climate emergency? Currently there seems momentum. A bunch of governments including the US and China (the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases) have recently set ambitious targets (by previous standards) to reduce emissions.
It has taken a while to get to the point where the existential damage to the planet is being taken seriously. Scientists have been sounding the alarm since the 19th Century. In the 1820s, French physicist Joseph Fourier concluded that some of the energy that had reached the planet as sunlight when returning to space must be trapped within the atmosphere, keeping the Earth warm in the way a glass greenhouse would.
Irish scientist John Tyndall’s laboratory tests in the 1860s showed that coal gas (containing CO2, methane and volatile hydrocarbons) was especially effective at absorbing energy. It heated up the atmosphere. Eunice Foote on the other side of the Atlantic was conducting similar research and probably beat him to the same conclusion. In the 1930s, the English scientist Guy Stewart Callendar, suggested that a doubling of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere could warm the Earth by 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F).
Despite 200 years of research and alarm sounding, it is only in the last thirty years that this existential risk has been taken seriously. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1989, with the Rio summit of 1992 marking the first major Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed by more than 150 nations. They promised to work towards preventing "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." Agreements in Kyoto (1997) and Paris (2015) followed (although Copenhagen in 2009 ended in failure).
Meanwhile the actual impact of climate change was increasingly evident. Between 1998 (a year after Kyoto) and 2017, climate-related disasters caused direct economic losses $2,245 billion, killed 1.3 million people and left a further 4.4 billion injured, homeless, displaced or in need of emergency assistance. (Data from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters).
Compare the slow reaction to the climate emergency with the COVID 19 pandemic. Cities emptied, airlines grounded. Borders closed. The wheels of production curtailed. The theatre and the Arts shuddered. Maybe it is the slow timescale of climate change that doesn’t precipitate urgency and a willingness to accept difficult policy choices. Yet the policy changes required to mitigate climate change are far less disruptive — economically, socially and culturally — than the measures that were needed to tackle COVID-19. You can still hug grandma and save the planet.
It begs the question, if such radical decisions can be taken to address a global virus can the same appetite for radicalism not be extended to the existentialist challenge to the planet.
Transport makes up 23 per cent of global carbon emissions. Driving and aviation are key contributors to emissions from transport, contributing 72 per cent and 11 per cent of the transport sector’s greenhouse gas emissions respectively. Remote working and business travel (or ILO Missions) can certainly help bring down these figures. Legislators in a number of countries (Germany and Ireland currently) are already looking at a “right to work from home” legislation.
Even businesses that do not want remote workers or it is not possible for them to work remotely, can consider staggering work hours to reduce peak transport demand, an idea that congested cities around the world have toyed with before the pandemic. These ideas are getting much more traction now.
The pandemic and how governments have reacted to it by making major policy decisions in hours and days rather than months and years has exposed the belief that something cannot be done without careful deliberation, study reports, consultations and more consultations. The crisis has shown this is not necessary.
Can the same appetite for radicalism that governments have shown in how they responded to the pandemic be extended to other important areas? Recent experience suggest it can.
Nelson Mandela famously remarked, "the impossible is always impossible until its done".
That saying has never seemed so pertinent.