A year of tragedy and chaos has also seen a dramatic leap forward for the global green economy
There is an alternative history to 2020. It was the year the world's largest polluter pledged to fully decarbonise its economy within 40 years. The year voters in the planet's pre-eminent superpower rejected a racist, misogynist, climate denier in favour of a man who pledged to engineer a net zero emission economy by mid-century. The year the world's largest market announced plans for the largest green stimulus package in history.
It was the year when hundreds of the world's largest and most influential businesses promised to completely decarbonise their operations and supply chains. The year when investors with trillions of dollars of assets called time on coal financing and pledged to deliver net zero emission portfolios. The year when the market cap of renewables developers and electric vehicle pioneers exceeded that of the legacy fossil fuel firms they could soon replace, a fair few of whom filed for bankruptcy.
It was the year when hydrogen fuelled and battery operated planes took to the skies. The year when lab grown meat hit the market and sales of plant-based products soared. The year when renewables set multiple new records and electric vehicles were rushed to market.
In the UK it was the year when the carbon target for 2030 was strengthened. The year when billions of pounds were earmarked for low carbon infrastructure and overseas fossil fuel financing was halted. The year when every politician talked of green recovery and the unerring economic and moral logic of the net zero transition - and the public agreed with them.
By the end of 2020 two-thirds of the world economy and over half of global emissions will be either covered by net zero targets or have such targets in the pipeline. The collective pledges and strategies put forward by governments will, if enacted as promised, put the world on track for 2.1C of warming by 2100 - a still dangerous level of climate change but a remarkable achievement given just five years ago the projection was for around 3C. Best of all, Donald Trump is currently packing up his crayons from the Oval Office.
It would be nice to close out a review of the year there, with a hymn to a tipping point start to a critical decade when the evidence that the Paris Agreement is working and global emissions are peaking became overwhelming, when the foundations for the next phase of the green industrial revolution were decisively laid. Nice, but dishonest.
Because if emissions did peak in 2019, if political and corporate leaders fully embraced the need for credible and ambitious climate action, if oil suddenly looked like a high risk legacy fuel, it was in large part because we were surrounded by death and destruction.
2020 was the year of the plague. A year of tragedy and trauma for millions of people, and insecurity and claustrophobia for billions more, with a side order of crushing governmental incompetence to cap it off. The hope is we will never see its like again, but there are no guarantees of that. Indeed, one of the biggest victims of the pandemic has been our narcissistic sense of invulnerability. The next pandemic could be worse still.
Throughout the rolling health and economic crises the green economy and its fellow travellers have been engaged in an admirable hunt for silver linings. They even managed to find a few.
Emissions may have plummeted largely due to a hugely damaging economic contraction, but the downward trend was amplified by the effectiveness of renewables in making a record contribution to the grid and the productivity-saving performance of remote working technologies.
It may have been a psychological ploy to enable self-preservation in the most challenging of circumstances, but huge numbers of people really did feel a greater connection with, and appreciation of, nature; an understanding of the value of local community; and an awareness of the immense risks that flow from our overexploitation of natural resources.
At the political level all but the most extreme of libertarian ideologues were forced to reckon with the critical importance of effective and proactive government, as well as the immense threat posed by long tail environmental risks, the interconnectedness of public and economic health, and the basic truth that mitigation is always more effective than adaptation.
But as I argued at the start of the crisis, none of these gains feel entrenched, and they in no way compensate for the grieving, chaos, and loneliness we've all had to endure. One of the hopes when the pandemic first struck was that it would teach governments the invaluable lesson that when faced with a complex, multi-faceted, but severe and exponential threat the best course of action is to throw everything at mitigating it as swiftly as possible or else risk being overwhelmed. The theory was the lessons learned could be usefully applied to a climate crisis where inaction is similarly punished and lag times and uncertain scenarios mean early measures and the astute application of the precautionary priciple tend to pay off. But, in the UK at least, we are now almost a year into the pandemic and as the death toll passes 60,000 and a new strain of the virus threatens to inundate health services the Prime Minister is still failing to apply these simple lessons to the coronavirus itself, let alone absorb them for tackling other longer term threats.
The pandemic may feel like an inflection point, but it is currently unclear if the ensuing acceleration will drive us headlong towards a utopian clean tech future or a dystopian pollutocratic catastrophe. Or, most likely, a mix of both.
The world has been stuck at a crossroads ever since the financial crash of 2008 when world leaders moved swiftly to patch up a dysfunctional and inherently volatile machine, and then for various reasons largely failed to trade it in for a newer, cleaner, fairer model. Progress was made, most notably in the form of the Paris Agreement's celebration of multilateralism and the green investment and technology trends it helped accelerate. But the inability to deliver more fundamental reforms fuelled a painful backlash that gave us Brexit, Trump, and, much more concerning still, Trumpism.
The net result was five years of going round in circles, a period when every good intention or decisive step forward was swiftly followed by a bout of tribalism, incompetence, or outright corruption. When the promise of finally sorting out environmentally destructive farming subsidies had to be delivered in tandem with tailbacks at the border and the poisoning of relations with our closest neighbours. When demand for electric vehicles rose alongside demand for SUVs. When every renewables development seemed to come with a new runway.
The pandemic and the unrelenting march of the climate crisis offers a chance to break this vicious cycle after a long decade of self-defeating stasis and actually pick a path forward. As people under 40 reflect on the second once-in-a-century economic crisis of their short careers, the critical question remains as to which route we will select.
In her brilliant essay on the pandemic, the novelist Zadie Smith started by quoting that rarest of things, a moment of honesty from President Trump. "I wish we could have our old life back," he said. "We had the greatest economy that we've ever had, and we didn't have death." It may have been expressed with characteristic clumsiness, but the President surely spoke for billions of people. Polls may show that majorities of the population worldwide want no truck with a return to 'normality', but our understanding of human nature says different.
Late last week the FT's Henry Mance provided an insightful reflection on what comes next, warning that many of the more sustainable behaviours prompted by the pandemic are unlikely to stick. "Imagine if, by late 2021, much of Europe and the US has been vaccinated against the disease," he wrote. "Those people who haven't lost their jobs have amassed savings. Imagine their desire to make up for lost time: parties, festivals, travel. What if the new normal looks quite like the old normal?"
The big fear is not that people embrace the opportunities for reconnection vaccines would bring - who could possible blame them and environmentalists should be very wary of conforming to the finger-wagging killjoy cliché as consumerism and travel inevitably come roaring back. No, the concern is that at the macro level the opportunity to 'build back better' is squandered. That political and business leaders repeat the mistakes of 2008 and duck the structural reforms that are so urgently required if the 2020s really is to be defined by the turbocharged decarbonisation of the global economy. As Mance concluded: "Normality is something to strive for; it is also something to regret. We have no reason to think this will be the last pandemic of our lifetimes. In climate change, humanity faces arguably the biggest collective problem it has ever faced. If the biggest lesson that we take from 2020 is that it's possible to work from home two days a week, then we have fallen short."
The temptation to return to an unsustainable 'normal' will be everywhere, especially as the next phase of the clean tech revolution - the EVs, heat pumps, and green building retrofits - requires significantly more investment and disruption to people's day to day lives. Too many governments have already reached for the familiar comfort of carbon intensive stimulus packages to revive their locked down economies. Others have demonstrated the continuing dearth of political nerve and governing competence that will be essential to the net zero transition, imploding trust in collective action through their deadly bungling of the response to the virus and arrogant dismissal of exponential risks. A government that cannot bring itself to sack advisers who breach public health rules or level with people about the health risks associated with Christmas travel until after train tickets have been bought and turkeys ordered is unlikely to suddenly find the backbone and communication skills required to avoid the political minefield that awaits as the net zero transition accelerates.
On both sides of the Atlantic opponents of climate action keep their powder dry, waiting for Brexit to open the door for a fresh assault on environmental ambitions and Biden to provide a left wing bogeyman in the White House. They are not discouraged at all by the fact they are out of step with a large majority of the public, economic logic, and basic physics. As costs plummet and clean technologies mature even faster than their advocates expected, governments' inability to stand up to vested interests and a culture war-infused backlash against environmentalism remain the biggest threats to a net zero transition that may be inevitable but is still proceeding too slowly. As President Obama once observed, "there is such a thing as being too late on climate change". Delay is the enemy.
Which is why the alternative history of 2020 is so immensely important. Because during a year when many within the green economy feared the global health crisis would distract from the effort to tackle the climate crisis, precisely the opposite has happened. Progress has not just been made, it has accelerated. The pursuit of complete decarbonisation and full spectrum climate action has been normalised like never before. There remains a big gap between ambition and action, and countless challenges and hypocrisies remain. But millions of businesses, investors, governments, and individuals used the start of a new decade dominated by tragedy to publicly select the path that leads to a cleaner, healthier, and more prosperous net zero emission future. 2021 offers the chance to not just cement those gains, but build on them. A better history awaits, if enough people want it.
A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing newsletter, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.
Dr Lorraine Whitmarsh is director of CAST (Climate change and Social Transformations) at the University of Bath
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