The year 2020 was always going to be critical for climate change, but the coronavirus pandemic dramatically altered the picture in some respects. Earlier this week, Brookings hosted a virtual event on COVID-19 and climate change, moderated by Samantha Gross, and featuring Brookings Senior Fellow Todd Stern, Ingrid-Gabriela Hoven of the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Stéphane Hallegatte of the World Bank, and Pablo Vieira of the NDC Partnership Support Unit.
The panel explored what lessons might be learned from the global pandemic that may inform response to other global issues, such as climate change.
We fielded several questions from viewers but didn’t have time to get to everyone. So here are answers to some of the questions we didn’t get a chance to answer.
Question: Do you think people’s behavior will change as a result of the current pandemic in ways that positively or negatively impact the environment?
Answer from Pablo Vieira: People will learn a lot from this experience, and it will demonstrate different ways in which behavioral changes can have a positive impact on the environment. People have been forced to master the art of meeting virtually, and ideally this will result in reduced travel and more working from home, which will have a permanent, positive impact. People are also temporarily experiencing cleaner air and water. Even though this is not the result of advancing clean solutions, it will at least show people how much their quality of life improves with clean air and water. People have also learned to live with a lot less, and hopefully this will result in a permanent reduction in the level of consumption.
But unfortunately, the short- or medium–term nature of the pandemic is unlikely to bring permanent solutions, and people will mostly go back to their normal way of life, forgetting very quickly the lessons learned during this time. It is worth noting that the far more devastating Spanish flu of 1918-1919 did not noticeably bring lasting changes in social norms. Hopefully the recovery efforts will lead to more permanent economic transformations, bringing long–term environmental improvements. On the other hand, political expectations may change. The importance of science and of credible institutions may grow. It is hard to say at this stage — there is little evidence of this yet in the United States — but after a year or more, people may start to demand more climate action from their governments.
Question: Will transitions to renewable energy be slowed or halted because of rock-bottom oil prices and a need to get economies up and running as fast as possible after COVID-19-related shutdowns?
Answer from Stéphane Hallegatte: Today, renewable energy sources are in most countries the least expensive source of energy, so that stimulus investments focusing purely on cost efficiency would often go naturally toward them. At the time of the 2008 financial crisis, in contrast, renewable energy was more expensive than fossil fuels. Of course, there are differences across countries, most notably in the ability of their power systems to accommodate the variability of solar or wind power, but we can nevertheless hope to see countries focus their energy-related stimulus investment on renewable energy, since it’s just the most economical option today. The drop in the price of oil should not be a major obstacle: Today, renewable energy mostly competes with coal, and the price of coal has not been affected much.
In many cases, it would also be useful to invest in better transmission and distribution infrastructure, to make the power system better able to absorb renewable energy. This would create jobs and activity, but also make the power system more reliable and resilient, and reduce the cost of electricity going forward — a clear win-win. According to the World Bank’s recent Lifelines report, the lack of reliable electricity in low- and middle-income countries has been estimated to cost around $185 billion per year to firms and up to $190 billion to households, so the economic potential from a more reliable power system is huge.
Question: Members of the Climate Mayors group across the country are prioritizing the need to address the immediate health and economic crises their communities are facing as a result of COVID-19. But they are also maintaining a focus on the need for a just, equitable, and sustainable economic recovery that creates quality jobs, protects the environment, and builds an economy more resilient to future shocks in which all Americans thrive. Can you please speak to the importance of local leadership and the need for stimulus measures in support of cities?
Answer from Todd Stern: Cities and states across the country have always been key players in the effort to contain climate change, and in the past 3 ½ years they have become the key leaders in the United States, owing to the Trump administration’s abdication of responsibility on climate change. Twenty-five of our 50 largest cities have their own local climate action plans. Fifteen U.S. cities — including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, New Orleans, Houston, Phoenix, and Seattle — are part of the global C40 organization, made up of over 90 megacities that account for some 25% of global GDP. Each member city has plans to do its part in holding global temperature increase to no more than 1.5° Celsius. U.S. cities, states, and companies that are part of the America’s Pledge effort that took shape after President Trump announced his planned withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement account for nearly 70% of U.S. GDP, 65% of the U.S. population, and over half of U.S. emissions.
So, there is no question that the action and activism of cities is crucial to the fight against climate change, and that will continue to be true even after responsible climate leadership returns to the White House. After all, a great deal of clean-energy action on the ground happens at the local level, including the way transport is managed, the design of building codes, the retrofitting of buildings that could be made much more efficient, and so on. And, yes, it will be enormously important that stimulus packages intended to revive our economy are designed to do so in a sustainable way that helps propel our clean energy transformation rather than locking in new high-carbon infrastructure.
Question: Can you share case studies and real-life examples of integrating sustainability into recovery and stimulus measures?
Answer from Stéphane Hallegatte: The response to the 2008 financial crisis offers some important lessons on how to include sustainability in stimulus packages. There are some successes, such as the package in South Korea that included many investments in nature-based solutions, and river and environmental restoration. One important lesson is that many governments could not make their stimulus as green as they wanted, due to the lack of “shovel-ready” green projects. Many green projects, such as in energy or transport, are complex to design and finance, and they require lengthy consultation and procurement processes. So, while some of these projects were included in stimulus packages, they could not get started immediately, reducing their value as stimulus projects. Another important lesson is the value of “low-tech” options, such as ecosystem restoration or afforestation, that combine short-term benefits (because they are quick to implement and very labor–intensive) and long-term potential (because they contribute to higher agricultural productivity, carbon capture, and reduced vulnerability to floods and other natural disasters).
The COVID-19 crisis is different in two major ways from the 2008 financial crisis. First, many zero-carbon technologies were very expensive in 2008 and are now cost-efficient. While renewable energy and electric cars needed subsidies to be competitive in 2008, they are now cheaper (or at least no more expensive) than traditional fossil-based technologies. It means that, even with limited budget resources, we can achieve much more through investments in electric car charging stations or renewable energy, and some trade-offs between economic and environmental considerations have disappeared. Second, we now have time to prepare projects so that they are ready in a few months when the health emergency gets under control and we can move on to the stimulus phase.
Question: Donors seem to be redirecting funds for climate to health. How can funders leverage the learning emerging from the COVID-19 crisis to inform enhanced resilience?
Answer from Ingrid-Gabriela Hoven: Many experts see a considerable risk that funds may be redirected from climate to health. However, we should not look at this as a zero-sum game. And it is of highest urgency that we save lives and livelihoods now — this must be an imperative for the international community.
In addition, there is a growing awareness that health issues and climate change are in many ways strongly interlinked. The loss of biodiversity is a multiplier for health crises — the current health crisis being a stark reminder of that. The health and climate communities do not need to compete for resources, but should rather join forces. This is not simply a matter of mobilizing funds for either health or climate, but about shifting the flow of funds away from harmful “brown” investments to “green” recovery efforts in order to benefit both health and climate.