UN Leader Calls for Green Coronavirus Recovery on Earth Day
In a special message for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day Wednesday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called on the world to respond to the immediate crisis caused by the new coronavirus in a way that also solves the climate crisis.
Guterres first acknowledged the pandemic that has prompted Earth Day to go digital this year, calling it "the biggest test the world has faced since the Second World War."
"The impact of the coronavirus is both immediate and dreadful," he said. "But there is another, deep emergency — the planet's unfolding environmental crisis."
The #COVID19 crisis is an unprecedented wake-up call. We need to turn the recovery into a real opportunity to buil… https://t.co/yDxkhBMsP2— António Guterres (@António Guterres)1587502800.0
Guterres then called on countries to make sure their coronavirus recovery plans also paved the way for a more sustainable way of life.
"The current crisis is an unprecedented wake-up call," he said. "We need to turn the recovery into a real opportunity to do things right for the future."
To that end, he proposed six steps for a green recovery:
- Create new jobs and businesses by transitioning to a clean energy economy.
- Make sure taxpayer funds used to bail out businesses go to green jobs and sustainable projects.
- Make sure finance is directed towards creating a greener economy and more resilient communities.
- Use public funds to invest in environmentally-friendly sectors and projects while ending fossil fuel subsidies and making polluters pay for the damage they cause.
- Shape financial and public policy decisions around climate risks.
- Work together as an international community.
"On this Earth Day, please join me in demanding a healthy and resilient future for people and planet alike," Guterres concluded.
The remarks are in keeping with Guterres' commitment to climate action, which has been his No. 1 priority since assuming UN leadership in January 2017, as Reuters reported. However, POLITICO interpreted his remarks as a direct challenge to President Donald Trump and said they showed a new willingness on the UN leader's part to confront the U.S. president who last week suspended funding to the World Health Organization.
In particular, Guterres' call for an end to fossil fuel subsidies goes against Trump's promise Tuesday to bail out the oil industry after oil prices fell below zero for the first time Monday. The U.S. also gives out the second-most subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, after China, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Further, Guterres' call for a green recovery echoes the demands of some Democratic lawmakers, who had pushed unsuccessfully to condition an airline bailout on reduced emissions, as Grist reported.
But Guterres' statement also intervenes in a global fight over what the recovery from the coronavirus will look like. So far, major stimulus plans in the U.S., China and Europe have focused on mitigating immediate economic damage, Reuters pointed out. But there are signs that some countries at least could incorporate green measures into future efforts. Austrian environment minister Leonore Gewessler said last week that an airline bailout should be conditional on climate policies such as fewer short-haul flights and the use of cleaner jet fuel.
In the U.S., a group of activists and experts has put forward a call for a Green Stimulus that urges investments in green jobs and projects alongside efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so as to limit global warming to around 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Emissions have declined as people stay home in response to lockdown orders, but experts say they will only stay down if environmental concerns are incorporated into recovery plans. Further, they point out that protecting the environment reduces the risk of future pandemics.
"While the pandemic will lead to a temporary dip in global greenhouse gas emissions, this must not distract from the urgent need for rapid fundamental changes in infrastructure, energy, land use and industrial systems to set us on a path to net zero emissions globally by 2050 at the latest," International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) Director Andrew Norton told BBC News. "Land use change and deforestation are primary global drivers of biodiversity destruction. They heighten the risk of further pandemics by bringing humans into contact with new threats such as the coronavirus. Every species lost is an irreversible event that decreases the resilience of natural and human systems on a permanent basis."
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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