We believe individuals will emerge from the pandemic with a better understanding of how our small actions can make a huge, collective difference and how inept political responses can lead to public disillusionment and even harm. To understand the lessons we can take from the year that’s been, we’ve combed the wins and losses for climate action in 2020, searching, at times desperately, for the silver lining.
Perhaps the most significant victory for the climate was President Joe Biden’s commitment on climate change evidenced by the US rejoining the Paris Accord on his first day in office. With the United Nations climate conference set to take place in Glasgow, in 2021, a commitment from the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases will have enormously positive consequences for reducing global carbon emissions.
And China, by a long way the giant of carbon generation, has this year made similar pledges – although its plan for carbon neutrality by 2060 is too late to limit global warming to 2C. There is hope however that in the next five years, China will increase clean energy generation and adopt more stringent targets for reducing emissions.
While the Australian government’s stance on climate change has been less than heroic, the country is shuffling in the right direction in terms of its coal addiction perhaps due to pressure from its trading partners Japan and the EU as well as insurers and banks that are refusing to underwrite coal projects.
Last week saw a historic ruling in the Australian Federal Court that will make it hard for politicians to approve large scale fossil fuel projects. The judge ruled in favour of eight children who tried to block the expansion of a coalmine project in rural NSW, declaring that the environment minister had a duty of care to protect young Australians from harmful emissions when making her decision to approve the coalmine. This is good news for our youth, giving them hope that governments will be held to account for the potential harm caused by future fossil fuel projects.
The pandemic has seen a reduction in human and economic activity, particularly in the transport sector, that many hoped would reduce global carbon emissions. In Australia last year, carbon emissions dropped to their lowest level in three decades. Around the globe, the biggest impact has been a temporary reduction in urban air pollution but these levels will rebound as lockdown restrictions are eased.
As we search for silver linings during this time of Covid, few could have anticipated the scope of compliance that has been witnessed around the globe. Citizens have stayed at home and distanced themselves for the protection and safety of others, donning masks and getting vaccinated. In some countries, they have been let down by their governments’ incompetence or complacency: as witnessed in Australia in the erratic rollout and shortage of vaccines.
Those who say climate action is not possible, or the effect on the economy would be too immense, need to look back on 2020. Catastrophic global warming is a greater existential threat than the Covid pandemic. We’ve witnessed timely action firsthand from scientists producing effective vaccines to business and industry pivoting to adapt to economic hardship and individuals taking responsibility for the common good. We know this can be applied to the climate crisis. If the world can shift to a new normal to meet the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, it can act with the same tenacity on climate change. Our challenge now is to learn from this, raise the public discourse on climate and find a route to unparalleled action in the face of a life-threatening scenario.