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Saturday, September 23, 2023

50th Earth Day: Hard global climate change lessons from COVID-19 pandemic

On Tuesday, April 21, 2020, it was reported that Queen Elizabeth II of England marked her 94th birthday in mournful silence. In a thoughtful consideration of the mood of her country where over 17,000 lives have been lost to the coronavirus pandemic, she decided to forego the usual gun salute and  celebratory display of military power as well as the ringing of bells in the Westminster Abbey with which her birthdays are normally celebrated.

Professor Chukwumerije Okereke
Professor Chukwumerije Okereke

Like the widely admired queen of England, it is only appropriate that we, the citizens of the world, should mark this year’s 50th Earth with sense of solemnity, reflecting the current unhealthy and fragile state of our human and non-human world.

In previous Earth Days, people have carried placards, staged carnivals, chained themselves to trees, and blocked airport runways to draw attention to the numerous ways in which the global pursuit of economic growth and our careless treatment of the Earth are putting the global environment and the very system on which life depends at risk.

Today no such demonstration is needed. Th normally super busy shopping streets are calm. The highways are deserted. The airports are quiet, and many production lines have been temporarily shut down. Billions around the world are on a lock down due to coronavirus. Faced with the ugly but real prospect of having their populations wiped out by the deadly novel COVID-19 virus, world’s governments and their people have been forced to accept that life is more important than economic activity.

The usually larger than life ego of the Homo sapiens has been trimmed. The façade of invisibility which we have maintained for so long has been uncovered and our vulnerability has been exposed by the microscopic coronavirus.

This is not the choice that we would have liked to make. But it has been forced upon us with severe consequences because as a people, we decided to ignore all the warnings issued by scientists on the need to prepare for a possible outbreak of global flu pandemic. We refused to plan because we were busy with elections, trade wars, taking back control of our boarders, trimming down immigration numbers, and protecting our tribal and national interests.

It is certain that victory will come for human resolve, will and ingenuity equips us to triumph over most difficult of challenges and circumstances. But it is also vital that lessons are learnt.  

For years, the world’s scientists have been shouting themselves hoarse about the unstainable rate at which we are using the earth’s resources and polluting our environment.

And while it has now become fashionable for governments around the world to pay lip service to the notion of sustainability and the green economy nearly all the indications show a massive gap between rhetoric and practice.

In 2018, global energy-related CO2 emissions grew 1.7% to reach a historic high of 33.1 Gt CO2. Despite agreeing am ambitious global carbon target in Paris in 2015, the world Green House Emissions has continued to rise and the chances of achieving a 1.5 degree global mean temperature is now all but zero, unless there is a massive and unprecedent deploy of so far largely untested carbon dioxide removal technologies in the next decade.

Despite the abundance of inexhaustible renewable energy in the form of solar, wind, tidal,  geothermal the world continues to rely on high polluting coal for almost 27% of its energy while these renewable energy sources account for less than 4% of total energy demand. Meanwhile coal-fired power generation accounts for 30% of all energy-related carbon dioxide emission.

The world is still losing the equivalent of 35 football fields of its rainforests every minute. The world’s oceans continue to warm at an unprecedented rate and species are going into extenuation at a rate previously unimagined.

The world does not need to wait to have a lock down forced upon it by a global climate emergency. 

There is an African proverb that says that a wise man does not set his house on fire in order to smoke out the rodents eating his grains. We must wake up to the urgent need to ditch the exploitative models of growth that have put us at odds with our natural environment and embrace sustainable development pathways that recognise man’s unity with the non-human world.

The coronavirus has reinforced the message that the whole world is intricately connected and that political and national boundaries are mere artificial human constructs that are not respected by virus, greenhouse gases and environmental degradation. It is vitally important that the world recognizes the need for international co-operation and effective global governance arrangements to address the challenges of climate change as well as any future outbreak of infectious diseases.

Coronavirus originated from China but has caused some of its greatest havoc so far in faraway US, Italy, Spain, and France. Within nations also, Coronavirus and the measures put in place to fight it, are exacerbating inequality, and affecting the weak, aged, and poor disproportionately. In a similar way, climate change carries a lot of equity and justice implications. Those that are most responsible for climate change are not always the ones that suffer the most from its impact.

For example, Africa is by far the most vulnerable continent to climate change; yet it responsible for less than 4% of the global stock of greenhouse gas emissions that is causing climate change. This calls for attention to be given to fairness, justice, and equity in sharing the burden associated with global climate change at national and global level.  The rich – people and nations alike – must fully recognise that it is morally repugnant to impose climate risks on the poor and then abandon them (the poor) to suffer and die without assistance.

The current crisis is a big wake up call to the world governments and their people. However, provides an opportunity for us to reflect on where we have got it wrong and what we need to do to achieve a better balance between economic development and environmental protection. We must turn the recovery plan from coronavirus into opportunity to turbocharge the global green economy revolution by shifting our development paths from grey to the green economy trajectory and making our societies more equal and climate resilient. This is an opportunity that must not be lost.

By Professor Chukwumerije Okereke (Director of the Centre for Climate Change and Development at Alex Ekwueme Federal University; Senior Visiting Fellow at the Oxford University Centre for the Environment, UK; and Coordinating Lead Author of the IPCC Report on Climate Mitigation)

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