All eyes are on coronavirus... but what about the planet?
14 April 2020 at 5:11 pm
With COVID-19 all anyone is talking about at the moment, we take a look at where that leaves the environment
As many countries shut their borders, impose heavy-duty lock down laws, and scramble to deal with the financial and social implications of coronavirus, the climate crisis has shifted out of focus.
But environmental advocates warn that just because attention is elsewhere it doesn’t mean the environment isn’t suffering, or that action to mitigate the impacts of climate change should come to a grinding halt.
The crisis is still happening
At the end of March, the Great Barrier Reef experienced its third major bleaching event in the last five years.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority confirmed soon after that the bleaching was caused by warming waters associated with climate change.
Nathaniel Pelle, a senior Greenpeace campaigner, told Pro Bono News that while the reef could recover, it needed drastic emission reductions globally and in Australia.
He said something that wouldn’t help was the fossil fuel industry actively trying to weaken environmental protections, attracting corporate subsidies from government stimulus packages and forging ahead with mining projects.
“We’ve seen the petroleum exploration licence fees suspended in South Australia and a lot of oil and gas companies calling for assistance as well,” Pelle said.
“Controversial coal and gas projects like the Metropolitan mine, the Vicary Coal Mine, the Glendale mine, and the Narrabri Mine are continuing apace, even while communities don’t have the opportunity to participate, while expert witnesses aren’t necessarily going to be available and scientific investigation is impossible.”
The Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, also recently came under fire for lifting the ban on onshore gas exploration in mid-March, a move environment groups warned could lead to worse bushfires and droughts.
Gavan McFadzean, the Australian Conservation Foundation climate change program manager, also said it was critical that a close eye was kept on the fossil fuel industry.
“These are times often when the fossil fuel sector may attempt to entrench its longevity as an economic powerhouse,” McFadzean told Pro Bono News.
“They have been ramping up their political donations federally in recent years and have the kind of political access that could shape economic reform as we come out of this crisis.”
He added that the postponement of climate talks such as the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Cop26 in Glasgow meant that global targets and action would have to hold off until at least 2021.
He said while it was understandable the events were postponed, it was critical that once the virus was under control climate action once again took centre stage.
“The Cop26 event was going to be the most important conference since Paris in 2016… it was the conference where countries were going to be setting targets,” McFadzean said.
“It’s going to be really important that climate issues return to the national stage as COVID-19 gets under control, because climate change is also a central threat to society and the global economy as we know it.”
Emissions are going down – But not for long
One of the bi-products of the pandemic is that because there are less cars on the road, and less consumption of fossil fuels, there has been a drop in emissions globally.
But Pelle said that this wasn’t going to last, nor was it a sustainable way to solve the climate crisis.
“In previous financial crises that had a different nature there was a rebound effect for greenhouse emissions as the economy caught up,” he said.
And this is already happening, with The National Geographic recently reporting that in China, an 18 per cent drop in emissions was already starting to rebound as the country restarted its factories.
Pelle said that if Australia and the rest of the world emerged from the crisis looking towards the energy solutions of the 21st century then the globe could see a recovery that worked for everyone.
“We could see a recovery that works for communities, that works for people, that makes people’s lives better and tackles the climate crisis at the same time, instead of a deliberate economic contraction and disruption to everyone’s lives,” he said.
A chance to start again
McFadzean said while the COVID-19 crisis was far from over, it was a good time to start imagining what a different kind of economy and climate future might look like if things were done differently.
“This means positioning ourselves to be an exporter of renewable energy to the world as we strive to make our future energy needs from low emission sources, recover our transport sector and move towards lower emissions vehicles, stronger pollution standards and electric vehicles,” he said.
“We have an opportunity to spend stimulus and economic recovery resources on projects which create jobs, reduce inequality, but also get emissions down more quickly than if this crisis had never occurred in the first place.”
He said an important part of seeing this shift come to life was strong collaboration between civil society, adding that organisations such as the Australian Council for Social Services, the Australian Council for Trade Unions and ACF were holding discussions around how they could use different skills to achieve shared goals.
“So I think stronger civil society collaboration will be critical in getting a strong message to leaders in business and in federal politics that we don’t want to return to business as usual once the COVID-19 health crisis is under control,” he said.