The Covid-19 pandemic has obviously made 2020 a challenging year on many fronts. But amidst the ongoing crisis, there is also a sense of opportunity, and the realization that the pandemic may have given us a rare chance to create a brighter future. While recognizing the enormous toll Covid has taken, now can also be a time to appreciate encouraging developments that happened over the past year — and plan for a recovery that leads somewhere not just different, but better.
Perhaps the most dramatic change, albeit an unintentional one, has happened with the environment. As Isabelle Durant, deputy Secretary-General of the UN Conference on Trade and Development, observes: “Covid 19 made us green by accident”. Scientists observed a dramatic global drop in CO2 emissions during the first half of 2020, with the decrease exceeding those observed during the financial crisis of 2008, the oil crisis of 1979, or even World War II. What’s more, people around the world have reported being able to hear birdsong previously silenced by the clamour of heavy industry or see mountains that had always been obscured by fog.
But now, of course, comes the trickier part: becoming green, as Durant further observes, not just by accident but by design. It’s not, unfortunately, inevitable that the trend the pandemic sparked will continue. Emissions did decrease during the 2008 financial crisis, but once the immediate crisis had passed, they resumed a steady climb. In fact, it’s likely the same thing will happen this time absent dramatic change.
Fortunately, this kind of change has the potential to simultaneously tackle both the environmental crisis facing humanity and the linked crisis of growing inequality. As Ebony Holland and Karen Wong Pérez observe: “A COVID-19 green recovery includes strategies for achieving cleaner air, healthier water, enhanced biodiversity conservation and plans for climate action. Initiatives supporting these outcomes can boost economic activity, generate income, create jobs and reduce inequalities. It’s a win-win outcome.”
In exploring the possibilities that lie within this kind of shift, Ralph Torrie of Sustainability Solutions Group (SSG), has found that with “investments well within the normal capacity of the Canadian economy, and with the creative partnership of the public and private sectors, we can reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 240 million tonnes per year by 2030.” He goes on to note that this “would put Canada on the path to a carbon-free economy within a generation, while creating more than twice as many jobs than have been lost to the virus.”
Encouraging though this prospect may be, of course, Canada is just one country, and the dramatic changes required will depend on action at the local, national, and global levels, and as Torrie observes, by the public and private sectors. As Neal Gorenflo notes, however, some world leaders seriously mishandled the pandemic, while many large corporations have used it as an opportunity to reap record profits.
The best hopes for change, therefore, may lie at least initially at the local and community level. Gorenflo also notes on the response to the pandemic: “While you may not see it, countless thousands are rising to the occasion. A large and rapidly growing wave of volunteering, mutual aid, and resource sharing is sweeping the globe. Instead of panicking, many people are defining this moment through their warmth, bravery, diligence, generosity, and creativity. This is The People’s COVID-19 Response.”
By showing what is possible, these efforts can perhaps, in time, translate into the broader structural changes necessary around the world. As a statement by the RIPESS network calling for these changes proclaims: “the challenges are immense, but the capacity of humanity to solve all of its problems is greater!”