In this second article in a series on the links between Covid-19 and the environment, economist Étienne Espagne examines the Covid-19 and climate crises to see what connects and what differentiates them. Can the pandemic accelerate climate change?
On April 20, 2020, oil prices went negative for the first time in the history of fossil capitalism. More specifically, it was the price of WTI oil deliveries scheduled for May that was negative. Two-thirds of this drop is due to collapse in demand caused by the Covid-19 crisis, and the rest to the conflict between the two producers Russia and Saudi Arabia, which has recently eased up following a new OPEC+ agreement.
Symbolically, this fall marks a change in era. It is now certain that, with negative or even just slightly positive prices in the coming years, the crisis will cause long-term disruption in the oil sector. We are thus entering a new period of the Capitalocene.
Covid-19: a tipping point in the Capitalocene Era
It is probably too early to determine how this new period will take shape. However, we can try to understand what role the Covid-19 crisis is playing in accelerating certain trends. These trends are already well underway: they concern the fossil nature of our economies and the threat of climate change, which has been having an impact for some time.
Is the Covid-19 pandemic a dress rehearsal for a climate crisis that will occur very soon? Is it acting as a catalyst in the widespread realization of the systemic ecological weaknesses generated by our modes of development? Will this realization – if it takes place – be strong enough to trigger a transition to escape the prevailing financial, economic, and geopolitical structures?
The current crisis is a metaphor for the climate challenges of the upcoming decade – or at least the two are strongly linked. Will we see a utopia of a decarbonized world? Or, rather, a dystopia of a post-Covid-19 upturn in emissions?
The Covid-19 crisis as a metaphor for the climate crisis
From the outset of the crisis, the problems posed to human societies by the Covid-19 pandemic have been likened to those already posed by climate change and that will be posed even more radically in the coming decade.
The first characteristic common to both crises is their growth dynamics, as both the virus and greenhouse gas emissions are spreading exponentially. In order to avoid entering a phase of uncontrollable exponential growth, very strong and swift measures must be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the one hand, and to isolate the people initially infected on the other. While these are winning strategies in principle, there are unfortunately few concrete examples.
A second common feature is that, in both crises, it is possible to reach points of no return that make the system uncontrollable. These infamous tipping points are linked, for example, to the weaknesses in country-specific health systems in the case of Covid-19, and to the melting of permafrost or to reversal or termination of ocean thermohaline circulation in the case of climate change.
Covid-19 and climate change: solutions in common
But Covid-19 and climate change are also similar in terms of the collective nature of the response to be made. In both cases, individual interests must be more strongly subordinated to the public interest. For example, young people, who are less exposed to the dangers of Covid-19, do not necessarily understand why they might have to be quarantined. The government, or the collective community, must be able to exert influence on individual choices so that the public interest is guaranteed. The experience of Covid-19 shows that individual behavior can change very quickly in the face of a radical, imminent, and highly uncertain threat. The responses we need to climate change should follow a very similar approach, i.e. pre-eminence of the collective interest, even though the signals may seem, as we shall see, more dispersed and less imminent.
But the public interest cannot be dictated from above without amending our very fragile social contract. Otherwise, crisis-response measures that are considered illegitimate may be put into question radically. For both types of crises, social justice is therefore fundamental, even more so than the magic of technology (or miracle therapy). Examples are paid sick leave or universal social security for one crisis, and green jobs and the fight against inequality for the other. Without effective social justice, there can be no collective community; without it, the response to the crisis will be suspected of hiding some dark purpose and will legitimately be challenged.
Two crises, two different time frames?
Nevertheless, we should not be obsessed by the similarities between the two crises. Some aspects are more ambiguous or even set the two crises completely apart. In fact, the two crises appear to be opposite in terms of their relationship to time. Covid-19 is abrupt; it can attack anyone, even though it can reveal and exacerbate inequality in some cases. Yet, we perceive this crisis as temporary. Future climate disturbances, on the other hand, will be around for more or less all of human history. The suddenness of the virus outbreak has made it possible to implement “shock doctrines” that are establishing extreme or unusual measures in the name of emergency. But because the evolution of climate change is less radical and perceptible, such strategies are more difficult to implement for now in the case of the climate crisis.
Nonetheless, it is not wholly accurate to say that the time frames of Covid-19 and climate change are opposite. Nothing today indicates that the pandemic will not persist over time, contrary to what is implied by all the highly short-term political measures taken up to now. Conversely, our perception of climate change as dispersed and less imminent is misleading and even dangerous. The Covid-19 crisis has led to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions for 2020; however, they represent more or less what should be reduced annually to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C with good probability. In other words, in terms of emission reductions, an annual Covid-19 crisis would be needed for serious mitigation of climate change.
Beneficial climate effects from the lockdown: wishful thinking?
The sudden downturn in the global economy was quickly presented in the media as a welcome breather for the planet. And it is true that satellite observations immediately recorded a drop in emissions of nitrogen dioxide in China and in Italy. Meanwhile, Germany has realized that it will be able to fulfill its promises for CO2 emission reduction for 2020 without difficulty, contrary to initial expectations. Initial global assessments are already suggesting a drop in global emissions that, while unprecedented, is nonetheless barely sufficient to achieve a trajectory that meets the 1.5°C target. On a more trivial note, the photos and videos of wild animals wandering through the deserted streets of a few major cities around the world may have given the impression that nature is reasserting its rights.
For those who can benefit from minimal comfort during their lockdown, it is certain that the latter is conducive to a realization of the superficial nature of many of the everyday needs of consumer societies. Intercontinental travel for conferences has now been put into question, and forms of work that limit daily travel while making cities less congested are being adopted. These trends will undoubtedly be accelerated, as will, more broadly, a broad set of measures to reduce emissions at the consumption level. Meanwhile, the general perception of occupational hierarchies is being turned upside down: nurses, garbage collectors, farmers, doctors, and package handlers have become the esteemed guarantors of continuity in the basic functions of society.
Nevertheless, as we are about to see, associating the idea of a low-carbon transition with the collective lockdown experience is a major political risk to any future attempt at a real transition.
Carbon-based recovery a threat already…
We should be cautious about viewing the abrupt halt in our economies as being beneficial for the climate and the environment in the long-term. As François Gemenne points out, the climate does not need a sabbatical year, but a continuous decline in emissions. The experience of the 2008 financial crisis shows how fast the rebound in emissions can be.
Above all, crisis periods do not seem conducive to environmental policies. Canada, for example, is already proposing an oil and gas sector recovery plan, and a number of European countries are challenging what is nonetheless a very modest Green Deal proposed just a few months ago by the new European Commission. Employers’ organizations in France and other European countries are putting forward the idea of loosening environmental standards to facilitate recovery. Emissions appear to be picking up again in China, spurred on by recovery focusing on coal and 5G technology. Above all, very low oil prices could significantly depress investment in renewable energy in the coming years, locking the world economy into a worst-case scenario.
How the Covid-19 crisis can teach us lessons about the climate
If we are to overcome the economic and financial crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, we must learn from the environmental and social causes of its emergence and spread. Humanity has just experienced how drastically it is vulnerable to phenomena that it has caused in what are sometimes very indirect ways. For each of us, this crisis can act as a huge dress rehearsal for the coming climate crisis.
While the causes that have led to the current crisis are clearly ecological, can the exit strategies ignore the environment? In the coming months, will we be sleepwalkers in the great climate war that has already begun? Or, can we rise to the poet Hölderlin’s challenge to the effect that “where danger grows, so does that which saves”?
Responding to these questions means that, during this crisis, we must concern ourselves with transforming the core institution of the Capitalocene: money and finance. Its in-depth restructuring is crucial for reconstruction that is not a carbon-based recovery. This will be the theme of the third part of this series.
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.