Pairing action on the pandemic and on climate change will ensure that economies end up stronger than before
Fifty years ago today, protecting the environment became a mass movement when 20 million Americans took to the streets in hundreds of cities around the country to mark the first Earth Day. Over the past half-century Earth Day has become a global event, observed in some 190 countries and involving nearly 100,000 organizations in the largest civic observance in the world.
This year it is focusing on climate change as the biggest challenge to the future of humanity and the global commons – the life support systems that make Earth habitable.
Earth Day is celebrating its golden anniversary against the background of unprecedented demand for change. Over the past year, millions of schoolchildren have demonstrated, calling for radical measures to curb global warming, while more than 850 companies are taking action consistent with what the science says is needed to combat it.
But Earth Day is also taking place amid the worldwide lockdowns put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19. The pandemic has changed our lives in ways we never imagined: shutting schools, offices, shops and factories; grounding airlines; and closing borders.
Earth Day is going digital this year with the biggest online climate conference ever held.
The emergence and effects of this devastating virus are a wake-up call for us all, showing us the exponential nature of some risks and how fragile our way of life is. Life on Earth, we now truly understand, is a delicate balance: it takes only one black-swan event to put everything in jeopardy.
Yet it has also shown that we have the will and the capacity to face down threats, that all of us – families, businesses, and governments - have the power to act radically and decisively when the moment calls for it.
The coronavirus has moved with a frightening speed, and we have responded with urgency, taking the action that is necessary. We have not hesitated to suspend “normal life” because we understand that is necessary.
Companies around the world are showing how they can act to protect people and the most vulnerable. And governments are quickly designing some of the biggest economic stimulus packages ever seen in peacetime, to ensure that the damage to economies, companies, and people is minimized and the chances of a strong recovery maximized.
The climate crisis has the potential to be far more devastating than COVID-19. It is clearly visible on the horizon, allowing us the chance to take decisive action. But we are still moving too slowly to address it. We are often too tangled in red tape and bogged down in internal and company politics.
We have not yet really understood that the worldwide devastation from climate change will be much, much worse than what we are experiencing today.
The science is clear: climate change is a present threat to human lives, health, and the economy. The decisions governments make now will determine the strategic direction of companies and economies for years to come.
We cannot go back to business as usual and lock in old habits, pollution, spending, and infrastructure that will inflict further harm on the very people, communities, and economies that the stimulus packages seek to support.
The focus has to be on rebuilding economies and setting a new course. We must use this moment of crisis and renewal to build greater resilience and to tackle the biggest threat to our existence. Governments must put climate action at the heart of economic stimulus.
Pairing economic recovery action with climate action will ensure that economies can end up stronger than before, while simultaneously reducing emissions. As a report from the New Climate Economy shows, shifting to a low-carbon economy could create a $26 trillion growth opportunity – and 65 million new jobs – by 2030
We Mean Business has called for longer-term economic stimulus to be screened through the lens of climate change and resilience, to ensure that government spending and policies accelerate the transition to a greener economy. There should be a focus on measures that contribute to reducing emissions, ensuring clean air, and providing good jobs, as well as safeguarding economic growth.
The packages should encourage rapid deployment of existing climate solutions and spur the development and demonstration of the technologies required to establish an inclusive, resilient net-zero carbon economy by 2050 at the latest. Governments should provide companies with the clarity and confidence they need to unlock further investments in climate solutions.
Such a climate and resilience lens should also apply to public financial support for companies. Businesses receiving long-term public financial assistance should be required to do three things.
First, they must integrate risk into company disclosures – in the case of climate, in line with the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures. Consistently assessing risks in company investments and strategy will ensure future decisions mitigate climate change, avoid stranded assets, and prevent future risks. Understanding risks and managing them is the best way to build more resilient companies and economies.
Second, they should set science-based targets consistent with limiting the global average temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels and reaching net-zero emissions by no later than 2050. Understanding and integrating science into decision-making is the best way to protect against future shocks and to ensure rebuilding in future-proof ways that work for people and planet.
Third, they must invest in low-carbon solutions that create new jobs. Companies should prioritize investments in technologies, products, and services that increase employment and reduce emissions. Examples include investments in retrofitting buildings, in renewable energies, and in achieving mass production and economies of scale in technologies that can decarbonize heavy industries.
Business and government can and must work together at this extremely challenging time to lay the foundations for positive change. Concrete government policies that send a clear signal to business will help us rebuild from this devastating crisis in a way that delivers a healthy future for everyone, through greater resilience and a clear pathway to a zero-carbon future.
This piece was originally published for the GEF-Telegraph Partnership.