Leader: The message to the planet

The cost of environmental ­destruction far exceeds the cost of preventing it. But the world is sleepwalking into catastrophe. 

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Rather than defeating Covid-19, the world is being forced to learn to live with it. Six months after the pandemic began, the number of new cases rose by a record level of 307,930 on 13 September, and no end is in sight, as we report in our special package on page 26. A vaccine, or vaccines, may eventually be developed, but it would be reckless for governments to ­assume as much.

As well as causing nearly a million official deaths, Covid-19 has magnified pre-existing crises and newly exposed the world’s vulnerabilities. Multilateral institutions have foundered as states have resorted to vaccine nationalism.

Though global carbon emissions fell by 17 per cent in April as much of the world went into lockdown, they had returned to within 5 per cent of their 2019 levels by early June. As a consequence, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere has reached a record high. Each week brings new evidence of the lethal threat this poses to humanity and the natural world. The apocalyptic fires in California have offered a preview of the fate that may await many parts of the world: “megafires” and fire tornadoes, toxic air and the highest temperature reliably recorded on Earth (54.4˚C). These events are not mere aberrations but the predictable consequence of unprecedented warming: the 20 hottest years since records began in 1850 have occurred in the past 22 years.

In his latest BBC film, Extinction: The Facts, David Attenborough offered a lucid warning of the threat posed to the world’s ecosystems: of the estimated eight million species on Earth, a million are now at risk of extinction. “We are only just beginning to understand that there is an association between the rise of emergent viruses and the planet’s demise,” he warned. “The more we continue fracturing the wild with deforestation, the expansion of farmland and the activities of the illegal wildlife trade, the more likely it is that another pandemic would arise.” Deforestation in south-east Asia, for instance, is expected to force 99 per cent of the region’s bats to migrate by 2050 (there are thought to be as many as 3,000 coronaviruses circulating among bats).

The world may have a decade left to prevent average temperatures rising by more than 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels – the point at which the risk of irreversible and catastrophic climate change significantly increases. (They currently are at around 1˚C higher.) Yet even if every country that signed up to the Paris Agreement met its targets on reducing carbon emissions, the world would be 3˚C warmer by 2100. Far from achieving the government’s ambition of net-zero emissions by 2050, the UK is forecast to miss its carbon targets for 2023 to 2027 by 5.6 per cent and for 2028 to 2032 by 9.6 per cent.

The Covid-19 crisis represents an opportunity for change. Through dramatic interventions to support jobs, businesses and living standards, governments have demonstrated the power of the state to reshape the economy. The risk, however, as after the 2008 financial crisis, is of a retreat to the status quo. G20 countries have devoted around £120bn of bailout spending to fossil fuel industries – only a fifth of which is conditional on ­environmental requirements – compared to £71bn for clean energy.

The World Economic ­Forum recently estimated that tackling the climate crisis could create 400 million jobs and £8trn in business value each year by 2030, while the current rate of destruction threatens over half of global GDP. “There will be no jobs or prosperity on a dead planet,” observed Alan Jope, the chief executive of Unilever.

Reversing climate change is no longer an act of altruism but one of simple self-interest. The cost of environmental ­destruction far exceeds the cost of preventing it. But faced with a paucity of global leadership – and the renewed ­intensification of geopolitical rivalries in an age of populist strongmen – the risk is that the world will, once more, sleepwalk into an avoidable catastrophe. And Mr Attenborough’s message to the planet will have been tragically ignored. 

This article appears in the 18 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid

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