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Earth Day and climate action in a post-COVID 19 world

April 22, 2020
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Merran Smith

As the world heralds the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, there is new hope that we can leverage the COVID-19 pandemic’s positive impacts on the environment to mobilize greater support for climate action while forging a resilient and sustainable economic recovery. 

Merran Smith and Deborah Harford, both fellows with Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, share their views on how governments can choose to “build back better.”

SFU has also been ranked number one globally for its impact on sustainable cities and communities, and is among the world’s top 10 universities for its commitment to tackling climate change, according to Times Higher Education’s (THE) 2020 University Impact Rankings.

Deborah Harford

Earth Day and COVID-19

“Earth Day is about protecting our planet. Pandemic or no pandemic, we cannot lead healthy lives without a healthy Earth to live on,” says Smith, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented us with a chance to build back the economy we want–one with less pollution and more resilience.

“It’s a chance to build a better, more resilient Canada. It’s a chance we can’t miss.”

Harford says, “Just like the pandemic, the solutions to climate change and environmental destruction lie in cumulative decisions being made by the global population. Flattening the curve of infection and reducing the trajectory of warming both require concerted, collaborative action by governments, industry and individuals.”

Solutions for post-COVID economic recovery

The environmental causes of the pandemic, such as carbon-intensive habitat loss, are related to the causes of climate change, and solutions to both crises need to factor in ecosystem health as a core priority, says Harford.

Smith terms the post-COVID recovery a “once in a generation opportunity” to target stimulus dollars to make Canada’s economy more sustainable and resilient.

She points out that New Zealand​, ​South Korea​ and the ​European Union are already focused on aligning economic recovery with energy transition and climate action.

The ​oil patch bailout announced by Canada’s federal government on Friday, which will help create jobs cleaning up abandoned wells in Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan, is a step in the right direction, she adds.

Building environmental resilience

“We only have a decade or two to reduce our emissions enough to bend the curve of climate change away from catastrophe,” says Harford. “All our investments now, including every penny we spend as we emerge from lockdown, should therefore be subjected to a ‘low carbon resilience’ lens that asks two questions: will the results of this investment reduce emissions, and will they reduce vulnerability—of people, infrastructure, the economy and ecosystems—as the climate changes?”

Tying stimulus dollars to jobs that lead to a reduction in carbon pollution and fight climate change is also a winning approach, says Smith.

“Achieving these goals will require that governments deploy several strategies to train our workforce, re-tool industries to compete, build clean, and send clear policy signals.”

To that end, the government would need to support training and retraining of unemployed Canadians whose past jobs may not return. This will get them back to work quickly and help build a prosperous, resilient economy that produces less pollution, she adds.

This would involve directing the government’s investment to renewable power sources, energy storage, transmission lines and expanding public transit, including construction of more walking paths and bike lanes.

Building more clean fuel and renewable gas plants that draw on waste streams from forestry, agriculture and municipal garbage, more electric vehicle charging stations across the country and a domestic zero-emission transportation industry would also help.

Constructing energy efficient homes, buildings and factories using Canadian-made, low-carbon, concrete and steel or sustainably produced mass timber would also boost the economy, Smith says.

Bolstering clean-tech innovation and policy change

Lessons from the impact of the pandemic should help accelerate a clean energy transition, which would require clear policy signals from the government, says Smith.

She suggests the Canadian government could learn from the Obama government’s strategy following the 2008 financial crisis, where the United States invested billions in clean energy-related economic stimulus measures. This resulted in 900,000 job years (full time jobs per year), re-employing those who had lost their jobs and halving the cost of solar power systems in the five years that followed while reducing battery costs by two-thirds over the same period.

“Making the right investments now has the power to propel our economy in the right direction, while also making key climate solutions and technologies cheaper and more readily available.”

Harford cautions the government to hold strong against intense lobbying from industry groups to reduce environmental regulations that could speed project acceptance and initiation to restart the economy.

“If these regulations are removed, it will be extremely difficult to reinstate them, so this is a serious threat to a sustainable outcome to this disaster. Without strategic investment in and prioritization of planetary health, we could miss this opportunity and restart the world economy on a deeply unsustainable path that will make the climate crisis and the sixth mass extinction worse.”

Ensuring sustainable change

While it is inspiring to see how quickly the air can clear and wildlife has begun to enjoy some space sans the pressure of ubiquitous human presence, these are mere blips in long-term trends unless we act to change our systems, says Harford.

“(Global) warming is projected to increase about the same amount no matter what amount of emissions are released between now and 2050. Beyond mid-century, the curve reflects the decisions we make today. There will be some level of climate change that we have to adapt to, but how much is up to us.”

The pandemic has shown us that we can successfully work across all levels of government and with businesses, academia and civil society to solve this crisis, says Smith.

“Let’s keep this spirit alive and remember, if we can flatten the curve on COVID, we can flatten the curve on climate pollution.”