No silver lining to coronavirus, but a golden opportunity

Comment: Rebuilding after the pandemic should be a moment to reset international governance, deepen global cooperation and restructure societies away from fossil fuels

Food systems and power sectors are among areas of global cooperation that need to be rebuild in a more resilient way after the coronavirus crisis (Photo: UN Women/Joe Saade/Flickr)

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The blue skies above our quiet cities are not a silver lining.

We never wanted a lesson in decarbonisation and our lack of resilience that condemned hundreds of thousands to death.

But the cleaner air that followed the coronavirus outbreak does represent a golden opportunity: our last best chance to shift our economies away from fossil fuels and reset the governance and institutional rules we need to deepen international cooperation.

As climate impacts intensify, how can governments be better prepared in supporting resilient societies and economies?  How can we build the international system we need for the difficult years ahead?

To ensure 2020 isn’t a lost year for climate action, but anchors climate risk and resilience at the centre of decision making, three areas of focus are important.

First, it’s not about the Cop – shorthand for the annual UN climate negotiations which have become the focal point of climate diplomacy. It’s about the calendar.

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There is nothing in the Paris Agreement that binds governments to ratchet up ambition by Cop26. But there is for the end of 2020.

In a year when most governments are scrambling to stop the haemorrhaging of lives and livelihoods from Covid-19, that ambition will have to be expressed in recovery packages, not necessarily in standalone climate plans. And some countries will miss deadlines.

It’s also the year to think about the format of negotiations.

We have long relied on an annual and expanding Cop as the mechanism to ramp up incremental progress that pushes smaller countries and quieter voices to the fringes.

In a post-pandemic world, tens of thousands of delegates and negotiators huddled in a conference centre may prove prohibitively difficult. How do we redesign negotiations so that they are fair and open, transparent and efficient and designed to move the process forward?

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Secondly, the short-term needs of economic recovery must be guided by a principle of “do no harm” to the decadal imperative of decarbonisation.

Short term stimulus that creates jobs and supports businesses can be aligned with long-term resilience goals, resource efficiency and carbon neutrality.

In the energy transition already underway, we have an opportunity to leap forward.

Comparing 2020 to 2019 energy production across UK and the EU, Finnish power company Wärtsilä reported that coal had slumped 25%, emissions were down 20%, energy demand was down 10% and renewables were providing over 45% of energy generated.

It is a glimpse of the future we can have.

The collapse of the oil price means governments have a chance to divert public money currently used to subsidise fossil fuels to ease an inevitable restructuring of the power sector.

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Stimulus funds, regulatory tweaks and other incentives can be used to accelerate investments in smart grids, energy efficiency, digitilisation and renewable energy installation and storage.

The fossil fuel sector, and national oil companies in particular, could be assessed from the perspective of bad and good assets that could be restructured as happened after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Back then we created a European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Now, perhaps, we need the Global Bank for Clean Development.

With the price of oil hovering in low double digits and the WTI crude oil benchmark in the US recently in negative territory, Donald Trump’s administration is considering paying producers to keep their shale oil in the ground. Russia is exploring proposals to burn oil to cut production and support the limping price.

Make no mistake, Covid-19 is the respiratory crisis that should hasten the end of the current energy system.

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The pandemic has also laid bare our broken food systems. Food supply chains are broken, leaving hundreds of millions at risk of famine across sub-Saharan Africa and miles long lines for food banks and community pantries dangerously low on supplies across the US.

Again, we have an opportunity to build back better.

The food we consume is the leading driver of chronic disease which in turn is increasingly the biggest drain on public budgets. That diet is also killing the planet. Our current food and agriculture systems are unsustainable and wasteful.

There have been experiments to begin fixing parts of this, such as paying farmers to protect soils and health insurance companies providing clients with healthy meals.

In repairing each of these systems, the public’s new sensitivity to value what is ‘local’ may be enhanced while the risks embedded in global supply chains are better understood. Investing in local – from food production to distributed energy – could be a smart and job-rich resilience strategy.

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Finally, we need a level of international cooperation not seen in recent years.

For while Covid-19 may not be an existential threat to us as a species, it most certainly is for our international system of governance. The scale of the economic response to the pandemic is testing the capacity and model on which the UN and the global monetary system are build.

Just like governments must focus on short and long term goals simultaneously, the UN and global financial institutions must prop up existing international instruments while, at the same time, start laying the groundwork for the multilateralism that can ready the world to face truly existential threats.

Multilateral development banks (MDBs) will need to pool capital and expertise to rise to the challenge and should prepare countries for future shocks and a decarbonised world.

Development aid from the West will have to rise above the dizzying array of specialised funds and bespoke solutions and find ways to work with greater speed and scale. And China and India should be brought into a constructive dialogue about support to developing countries.

The preamble of the UN Charter describes the need for cooperation and tolerance born of the hard lessons of two world wars. It speaks of social advancement, rights and peace. It is a charter of the people.

Today, as many feel let down by their governments which, with rare exceptions, have been flatfooted at best and callous in their disregard for science and wellbeing at worst, we, the people, have to demand more.

Competence and compassion seem like good places to start in seizing that golden opportunity.

Rachel Kyte is the Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Massachusetts. She is the former CEO and special representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All. 

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