I’ll answer that by looking into the following areas:
How this crisis compares with the Spanish flu tragedy of a century ago
Looking back 100 years, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 lasted until December 1920 and resulted in around 500 million cases with roughly 50 million deaths worldwide. More than a quarter of the world’s population was infected and around two and a half times the people died as died in the First World War which had just ended.
The virus did not originate in Spain. Owing to Spain’s neutrality in the Great War, its media was one of the few that was not censored and so they reported the outbreak in full. Because it was one of the only places where people could read about it, they put two and two together to make seven and gave the credit for the outbreak to the Spanish. The Spanish themselves called it the French flu!
It was caused by the H1N1 avian flu virus. The tragically high infection and therefore death rate was largely due to soldiers’ returning home from the Great War and bringing the virus back to their communities with them. But also, there was an absence of the technology available to communicate and collaborate that we have nowadays, whereas the returning soldiers emulated the global travel of today.
The features of this pandemic
We obviously hope and pray that this current pandemic does not exact the same toll on our population. Although there has been a tragic rise in the death rate it does appear that modern technology as well as the heroic efforts of medical staff worldwide will prevent the numbers from reaching the horrific heights of a century ago.
So, what has been the cause of this pandemic? It has been suggested that an epidemic of African Swine Fever has halved the Chinese pig herd. With this scarcity of pork, which is the primary protein source in China, many have been seeking more ‘exotic sources’ of meat to supplement their protein diet.
It is also believed that a strain of the virus in bats infected pangolins (as an intermediary host) bought in a Wuhan wet market before infecting humans.
What have been the primary factors behind this current outbreak? I’d rather not look at the political contributors such as which country had enough PPE or testing kits or which government ‘fiddled while Rome burned’ when it came to the lockdowns.
I would rather point my finger at more generic fundamental factors such as the pressure that man is putting on the environment.
For me one of the curious elements is how many countries have approached the outbreak by adopting a military rhetoric with vocabulary such as ‘enemy’, ‘defeat’ or ‘surrender’.
This is quite understandable as politicians strive to convince their populations of the seriousness of the threat by pointing at the (invisible) enemy at the gate. They are also aware of the boost to their ratings in wartime.
Having said this our economy is the antithesis of a wartime economy in which production and employment would soar in a bid to support the war effort.
So when we compare 2020 with 1918 we can see that technology with greater communication and collaboration has averted the attrition levels that were experienced back then. In many countries the wartime spirit has been invoked to create a wartime singularity of purpose and medical staff, as they probably did a century ago, have gone ‘above and beyond the call of duty’. Our challenge then is how to channel the technology and commitment towards the more distant but significantly greater threat of rainforest destruction and climate change.
The impact on carbon emissions
While it is a tragedy that is still playing out, the pandemic gives some cause for optimism. The lockdown measures around the world have shown, according to the carbon brief, the largest fall in carbon emissions since the records began in the 18th Century . They predict a fall of emissions in 2020 of around 5.5% which is greater than any depression or war on record.
This cannot all be attributed to Coronavirus. As an example, the falling out between Russia and Saudi Arabia has led to the oil and gas price crashing. This has led to many generators moving from coal which emits the most of all fossil fuels to the lower emitting alternatives, primarily gas. So even without the pandemic this would have put downward pressure on emissions.
Regardless of how it has been achieved, the reduction in carbon emissions can be viewed positively, however CO2 emissions should not be confused with CO2 concentration in the atmosphere which is the important metric when it comes to climate change.
CO2 resides in the atmosphere for more than 30 years therefore this temporary dip in carbon emissions will have little effect on CO2 concentrations and therefore will do little to curb climate change over the long term.
How rainforests can lead the battle against climate change
The sobering thought is that to hit the target of limiting temperature rises to the Paris Climate Agreement’s 1.50C we would need to maintain a 7.6% reduction in emissions every year in this decade.
This reduction target just looks at emissions. Rainforests provide the opportunity for a ‘double whammy’. Some rough calculations can demonstrate this. In 1950 around 15% of the land surface was covered by rainforests while today it is around half that figure. So, what would happen to net carbon emissions if we were to double the area of the rainforests?
If we assume that annual global emissions are around 40 Gigatonnes, Forest fires contribute around 20% (8 Gigatonnes). On the other side of the equation, rainforests absorb around 9 Gigatonnes of carbon. To calculate the size of the prize, let’s assume we return to the rainforest areas in 1950 and we eradicate forest fires.
This would remove 17 Gigatonnes from the atmosphere, probably more as reforested areas sequester more carbon than mature forests as the trees are bulking up. So, to maintain my somewhat cavalier rounding up approach returning rainforest areas to the 1950 levels would nearly halve our net carbon emissions. This makes the challenge of restructuring national energy models much less daunting.
While we are strolling down assumption avenue, if you were to convert all coal power generation to gas you would save another 6 Gigatonnes annually and 10 Gigatonnes if the switch were to renewables.
I realise that this is hugely simplistic, and that the carbon cycle is a hugely complex system, but the point I am making is that with the three steps of mitigating forest fires, maximising reforestation and kicking out coal we can get nearly three quarters of the way to net zero emissions.
Even if my figures are only directional, it shows that just by concentrating on 3 of the many areas in the climate change debate we can knock the 7.6% reduction (see above) out of the park.
So that’s emissions sorted! But to mitigate the effects of climate change, today’s atmospheric CO2 concentration (407 parts per million) needs to return to the levels prior to the industrial revolution (300ppm).
You do not need to be a statistical genius to work out that for this to happen the tonnage of carbon sequestered needs to surpass the tonnage of carbon emitted. Our effect on CO2 concentrations is illustrated quite alarmingly in the chart below.
For me, the primary cause for optimism that we can derive from this pandemic is that we now know that when we must do it, we can do it. The question is, can we translate a pandemic response into a climate change response?
I would also like to believe that the ‘new normal’ will mean that a number of the pandemic’s necessities will stick such as a greater acceptance of working from home and less reliance on transport and in particular air travel which will all contribute to a reduction in carbon emissions.
As a side note, I also hope that the politicians are smart enough to show practical appreciation to the health workers and other occupations in society that have proven to be too valuable to lock down.
But, back with climate change, I’d just like to dive into a maritime metaphor in attempt to look beyond the pandemic. However late to the party some governments have been most have dealt with this Coronavirus tsunami crashing onto their shores with a unified purpose which has mobilised their countries in the right direction.
It is alarming then that they seem incapable of reacting to the mega-tsunami of climate change that is approaching just because it is still out of view over the horizon.
There is a depressing inevitability to the fact that the link between the emissions’ plummet and the shutdown in economic activity means that the carbon emissions levels will bounce back at least as quickly as the recovering GDPs.
A further backward step will be that, as many companies, such as airlines, will have drained their capital reserves, offset programmes, in which they have become increasingly active, will be significantly cut back.
Why corporations and governments are so slow in changing
This rebound will be given added propulsion by the mindset in corporations consuming, as well as those generating, energy from fossil fuels that it is only these fossil fuels that can power the recovery to high performing economies. This is particularly true of coal as it is the cheapest (never mind the dirtiest) of the power generation fuels.
They hold that any investment in renewable energy over and above greenwash is an unnecessary constraint on the bottom line, share price and therefore bonuses. Their outlook on life needs to be recalibrated while they still have it!
I feel it is important that those of us who are promoting strategies for the rainforests and the climate understand why many businesses take such a contrarian approach. The current neoliberal models whose central principle is to let the markets flourish with minimal government interference (mainly taxes and regulation) hold sway in many industrial countries.
I do not feel it is helpful to cast neoliberalism as a pejorative term. Indeed, I believe that globalism which it holds as a central tenet has pulled several 3rd world countries out of poverty.
But the neoliberals have temporarily knocked ‘greed is good’ off the top of their soundbite charts for the much more topical ‘wealth before health’. They propose to adopt this new mantra as the best approach to tackling the crisis which they believe would reignite the stock markets, while sticking their fingers in their ears when it comes to the probability of a resurrection of the virus as well.
Much of their credo is based on the 12-month cycle of revenue, market share and profits. Bonuses drive a behaviour that means that CEOs and traders may look at the medium term, but they are obsessed by the short-term profits and their impact on the share price.
So, when you look at the economic cycles of the last forty years, the corporations, goaded on by the stockbrokers, ride their share price ever upwards, employing share buy backs as tactics to accelerate its rise further along with their bonuses.
When it comes to energy usage, they view that switching to renewable energy sources does not give a swift enough return on investment and therefore slows the upward propulsion of their share price.
But true to form, when the bubble bursts they undergo a damascene conversion to Keynesian principles demanding that the government should pull them out of the grave that they have dug for themselves.
How the environmental lobby and governments can make the change
So, what relevance does this have for climate change and the rainforests?
Firstly, it is clear that without external incentives in the shape of a carrot or a stick the business sector will only accept a need for their overheads to be channelled towards reductions in carbon emissions when the Atlantic’s high tide is lapping halfway up Wall Street.
The stick could take the form of carbon taxation which would have the same net effect on profit after tax as increased overheads.
The carrot could be in the form of carbon tax avoidance through carbon mitigation schemes such as offsetting. The challenge for offsetting is that carbon accounting needs to evolve into something that is vaguely effective and consistent. One option could be leasing schemes from tropical countries for the maintenance of their rainforests. This would provide sufficient exchange value for their governments to ensure that the trees stay put and cleared areas are reforested.
Secondly the environmental lobby must switch out of advocacy mode and start becoming more constructive in their criticism. Gluing themselves to trains and taxis is all very well to grab the public’s attention and its sympathy. But it does not take long for them to lose the public’s support and become marginalised, particularly when the less sympathetic sections of the media start weighing in.
They need to understand the reasons why not only corporations but also economies are apathetic or even hostile to investing in renewable energy resources and work with them and governments to chart an economically as well as environmentally sustainable course. Fine, they should call out greenwash wherever they see it, but they also need to celebrate the achievements as well.
And finally, governments should look at setting the right tone as well as the framework for these programmes to succeed. They must debunk the contrarians and seriously look at restructuring their energy generation models by eliminating the big carbon emitters such as coal.
Just as governments should be looking at those countries who have reacted most effectively to the pandemic such as South Korea, Germany and New Zealand, they should look at emulating success stories around the world in mitigating carbon emissions.
They could do worse than looking at tropical countries such as Bhutan and Costa Rica and assess which parts of their models are transferrable into their own economies. They could also look at rewarding those countries for their carbon sequestration.
So what now?
I think my final thoughts are that we are living the oft used and apocryphal parable of the boiling frog. We have jumped out of the boiling water of the ‘coronavirus’ beaker into the nicely warming water of the ‘climate change’ pan just as the gas flame beneath it is about to be turned back up to full.
So, what can the global economies learn from the pandemic that can be transferred to their strategies on climate change and the rainforest?
When fossil fuel generation (particularly from coal) is scaled back it has an instantaneous effect on carbon emissions
Reduced emissions only have a minimal short-term impact on atmospheric carbon concentrations. To prevent climate change, the residual carbon also needs to be sequestered out of the atmosphere.
When the danger is clear and present, we have shown that we can coordinate and collaborate globally allowing us to react effectively.
The biggest thing that I have taken from pulling all of this together is that this is not a binary debate. It is not a choice between living in a tepee or disappearing below the waves. There is a middle way, which means change, without drastic change. BUT, none of this will be possible without the rainforests!!
This only really leaves one question unanswered. How do we elevate the perceived threat of deforestation and climate change to the same level as that of a viral pandemic?