Once in a generation. Once in a lifetime.
These phrases keep cropping up to describe the historic opportunity now before us. With governments preparing to spend massively to revive a global economy battered by the COVID-19 crisis, there is a chance to use the coming stimulus to not only emerge from this recession but also put people back to work building a world that avoids further climate breakdown.
And that breakdown is very much ongoing even if our attention has turned elsewhere. Last month, the world saw the hottest May on record. This month, Siberia is undergoing a punishing heat wave. A category 5 cyclone ripped through Vanuatu’s Pentecost Island in April, destroying houses, trees, agriculture. A few short months ago Australia was burning. And a new scientific study has raised the stomach-dropping possibility that we have been grossly underestimating how powerfully the climate system responds to accumulating greenhouse gases.
It is absolutely crucial that we get this recovery right.
Recent comments by International Energy Agency (IEA) executive director Fatih Birol have emphasized just how crucial it is. What happens over these next few months will set the stage for the investment decisions that will determine how we use energy for the next decades, precisely the period in which carbon emissions have to be nosediving towards zero. “This year is the last time we have, if we are not to see a carbon rebound,” he said. “If emissions rebound, it is very difficult to see how they will be brought down in future.”
Birol was speaking after the release of a new IEA report on what a global sustainable recovery plan could look like. If used wisely, it argues, the trillions of dollars being poured into reviving the economy could, over the next three years, create or save 27 million new jobs in green sectors — the lion’s share in improving the energy efficiency of buildings (think retrofitting) and in the electricity sector — while ensuring that 2019 is the “definitive peak” of global emissions.
An approach of this sort focused on a massive and sustained public investment in a renewable future is the obvious thing to do, and already finds support among economists. It also overlaps with much of what proponents of the Leap Manifesto and the Green New Deal have been urging for years (even if still missing a lot of important elements of justice). The framework and the public support are already there.
But so are forces bent on ensuring this opportunity slips away in the same way the 2009 stimulus did.
Party like it’s 2009
Take for instance Jason Kenney, premier of Alberta. The twin crises of COVID-19 and a stubbornly low price for oil are taking their toll on the province, and a green recovery would do much to pull Albertans out of the abusive relationship they have long had with their inconstant fossil fuel industry.
But, when asked by a reporter about transitioning to a clean economy and whether his government was speaking to any American politicians advocating for a Green New Deal, Kenney was quick to shut down the idea. “We are actually not trying to amplify but fight back against the political agenda of the green left that has been trying to landlock Alberta energy,” he said. “So no, we’re not going to work with … the small minority in Congress that wants to pursue the ideological fantasy of shutting down the modern industrial economy.”
(Kenney also made time to check the reporter for deviating too far from the ideological bounds Calgarian media workers are apparently supposed to observe: “That kind of question, in the middle of an economic crisis, from a Calgary-based media outlet, really frankly throws me for a loop. Sounds like you’re reporting for The Tyee or something.”)
But the Alberta government’s disinterest in any sort of green recovery is not the most ominous of its recent actions. Its dedication of massive public funding for the Keystone XL pipeline (not to mention its energy minister stating that “now is a great time to be building a pipeline because you can’t have protests of more than 15 people”) is part of a larger global pattern of leaders using the pandemic to further fossil fuel development or roll back climate initiatives.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi used the pandemic as an excuse to auction off coal blocks. Bowing to industry lobbying, Norway’s conservative government recently offered tax breaks to oil companies, setting off an expansion of offshore oil and gas projects. . Australia’s COVID-19 recovery commission is pushing for natural gas development to play a major role in restimulating the economy. In the European Union, polluters look set to be major beneficiaries of stimulus money. In the U.S., Trump used the pandemic as justification for weakening automobile efficiency standards.
And Trump’s party is attempting an even grander, pseudo-Pavlovian strategy: pushing a mental association between a Green New Deal and the hardship of the current economic crisis, as if to say, “So you want to see emissions fall? This pandemic is exactly what it will be like.” As one GOP congressman put it recently, “Even with the pandemic driving major economic devastation and emissions declines, global emissions barely met the United Nations’ target of cutting annual emissions by 7.6 percent. … Simply put, even though the arbitrary U.N. climate standards may have been temporarily met in theory, it took pushing the global economy to the brink of collapse and jeopardizing the livelihoods of millions of Americans to do so.”
(That 7.6 per cent annual emissions reduction target is, incidentally, the one required if we are to prevent warming from exceeding 1.5C — a life-or-death matter for millions around the world, though merely “arbitrary” to high-ranking Republicans.)
What would have to occur if the present opportunity for a green recovery is not to be wasted?
A world we might survive
We might turn to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s concluding words to a recent address:
If this pandemic has been an unprecedented challenge for our country, it has also been an important opportunity to figure out what really matters in our communities, to have meaningful conversations about how we can take care of those around us, and, perhaps above all, to think about what kind of future we want to build together. We have the chance to shape our country and our world for the better and I know we are up to that task.
No, he was not talking about Canada’s response to the climate crisis, but the words fit well enough.
One way to shape our world for the better would be to stop supporting the industry that is making it worse. An easy place to start would be the cancellation of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. With its costs having ballooned obscenely, this would be the perfect time to dedicate the spending that would have gone to its completion towards a green and just recovery.
From there, Canada could begin to do the kinds of things that the IEA proposed. The Task Force for a Resilient Recovery, which describes itself as “an independent and diverse group of Canadian finance, policy and sustainability leaders” intent on “building back better” as the country emerges from the COVID-19 crisis, will likely recommend corporate-friendly steps of this sort to the federal and provincial governments in a final report expected in July.
But much more can be done. The Liberal minority government will need support, and this could be a chance for the climate movement to push the NDP to bridge the gap between a politically moderate green recovery and a full-blown Green New Deal grounded in justice. The People’s Bailout is one potential model, demanding zero-carbon housing be made a public good, with priority for Indigenous communities; an expansion of funding for a low-carbon healthcare sector that has faced austerity for too long; and a green jobs guarantee in areas like energy, food, transit, and environmental reclamation. This would be an excellent way to ensure that, instead of using recovery funds to bail out Canada’s ailing fossil fuel industry, the government guides workers into a sustainable economy .
If the forces hoping to use this moment to lock us into a devastated future can be beaten back, this is not just a chance to shape our country and our world for the better but to create a world we might survive.