Global Warming and Covid-19 – the role of Governments and the Private Sector in helping to prevent further pandemics by limiting Climate Change

Since the pre-industrial period (between 1850 and 1900), human activities are estimated to have increased Earths global average temperature by about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), a number that is currently increasing by 0.2 degrees Celsius (0.36 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade.

Indeed, there is a very high probability (greater than 95%) that most of the current warming trend is as a result of human activity since the 1950s.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the concentration of heat-trapping gases (often called greenhouse gases, (GHG)) has increased substantially since preindustrial times to levels not seen in at least 800,000 years. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is up by 40%, nitrous oxide by 20%, and methane by 150% since 1750, mainly from the burning of fossil fuels.

The top three GHG emitters, China, the European Union and the United States, contribute 41.5% of total global emissions, while the bottom 100 countries account for only 3.6%. Collectively, the top 10 are responsible for over two-thirds of global GHG emissions, the world cannot successfully fight climate change without significant action from these top 10.

How Countries and Their Governments Are Tackling Climate Change

Global warming and climate change are terms used interchangeably but refer to different things. Global warming reflects the human impact whereas climate change refers to both human and naturally produced warming and the effects it has on our planet. 1

‘Net zero’ refers to achieving an overall balance between emissions produced and emissions taken out of the atmosphere. In a net-zero scenario the residual emissions from ‘hard-to-treat’ sectors, such as aviation and manufacturing (where reducing emissions is either too expensive, technologically too complex or simply not possible), are allowed as long as they are offset by removing emissions using natural or engineered sinks.2

The 2015 Paris Agreement (COP 21) was a direct response to the recognition that action was required to balance emissions with the removal of greenhouses gases.  This legally binding international treaty was adopted by 196 Parties, with its goal to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C. Where 1.5°C is achieved, on average CO2 reaches net-zero by 2050 – this latter element being the goal many countries have accepted and are translating into national strategy, their visions of a carbon-free future.3

In the next round of U.N. climate talks (COP 26) due to take place in Glasgow later this year, countries will be expected to submit new, more ambitious 2030 targets. The aims of COP 26 will be to assess the progress made under the Paris Agreement and to encourage countries to enhance their original Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) into greater alignment with current climate science. While COP 26 was postponed due to COVID-19, the delay gives countries time to develop more ambitious targets and accelerate low-carbon actions to ensure a green and resilient recovery from COVID-19. All eyes will be on the U.S.4

Bill Hare, of Climate Analytics, one of the partner organisations in the Climate Action Tracker, said: “This looks like an historic tipping point: with Biden’s election, China, the US, the EU, Japan, South Korea – two-thirds of the world economy and over 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions – have net zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century commitments. These commitments are very close, if not within, 1.5C-consistent pathways for this set of countries and for the first time ever puts the Paris agreement’s 1.5C limit within striking distance.”5

Covid-19 and Its Impact on Climate Change

The COVID-19 pandemic is an enormous challenge to societies and economies across the world. The first immediate priority for governments has been to deal with the health crisis and save lives.6 Thankfully, the pre-COVID-19 global movement of tackling climate change has not subsided, in part due to the very obvious increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. In fact, arguably over the last 12 months the pace at which governments, companies and individuals have recognised the need for climate action sooner rather than later has increased, and there’s good reason. Economic losses incurred from weather-related disasters amounted to an estimated USD 337 billion in 2017, and these numbers are expected to grow substantially in the near future. 7

There is no evidence directly linking the COVID-19 outbreak to climate change, however researchers at Stanford University8 have illustrated that the characteristics of today’s global society (e.g. shifts in and destruction of wild habitats, greater global interconnectedness, high-density in large urban centres) increase the risk of future pandemics.

Satellite images of vanishing pollution in China and India during the COVID-19 lockdown provide immediate proof of how measures taken to counter the coronavirus pandemic can have immediate (albeit temporary) positive environmental impact. The key question is how to find a paradigm that provides at once environmental and economic sustainability.9

The Role of the Private Sector

As for the private sector, the tide may be turning toward “building back better” after the crisis.  There is an opportunity right now to seize the moment to decarbonize operations i.e. experiment with shorter supply chains, higher-energy-efficiency manufacturing and processing, videoconferencing instead of business travel and increased digitization of sales and marketing.

2020 started with major brands responding to the climate crisis with bold announcements to reach net-zero commitments. Even during the early days of the pandemic when many expected climate leadership to waiver, businesses kept doubling down on climate goals.10   Examples include Apple, who announced the goal to be carbon neutral by 2030; Ford Motor Company who pledged to reach net zero by 2050 and twenty retailers — including Aldi, Boots and Ikea — who signed onto the British Retail Consortium’s Climate Statement and committed to developing a decarbonization plan that will get the UK retail industry to net-zero emissions before 2050. These are just a few of the many to pledge similar climate goals. 11

The Private Sector can also participate in schemes that will aid in providing the required investment for climate action.

Pensions

The private sector will need to support sustainable finance and give people information, tools and products to ensure their pension money is invested in line with their values. Richard Curtis, co-founder of Comic Relief, recently launched Make My Money Matter12 to help make Britain’s £3 trillion pension pot more sustainable, and ensure it is invested in building a better world after the coronavirus pandemic, ensuring that all pension funds report on their commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050, with a halving of emissions by 2030.

Voluntary Carbon Market

To become carbon neutral, companies need to identify their emissions, invest in projects to reduce them and invest in external projects that offset any emissions they can’t eliminate. In 2020, former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, launched the Task Force on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets, a private sector initiative backed by more than 40 companies and organisations.  “This is a necessary market in the transition to net zero… this needs to be a $50-100bn per annum market” Mr Carney told the FT Energy Transition Strategies Summit. He goes on to say that the market for voluntary carbon credits needs to grow by a factor of 15 or more in the next decade if government targets for limiting global temperature increases are to have any chance of being realized. 13

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