COVID or climate?
It’s easy to imagine a world where the pandemic knocked climate action to the back burner, just when we desperately need to be amping things up. But that’s not what’s happening.
I wouldn’t have been surprised if the public had ditched everything less than immediate. If political leaders were too preoccupied to deal with slower-moving crises. You might have expected public concern over inequality and justice to get sidelined.
But what’s impressive is how often our better selves shine through. The first surge out of lockdown wasn’t a delirium of bacchanalia but a worldwide revolt against racism. The new U.S. administration is going full tilt on climate, and Joe Biden has summoned world leaders to gather in a few days and accelerate their commitments.
In Canada, the federal government announced a new, stronger climate plan in December. They knew headlines would be screaming about the $170 carbon price. As a matter of politics, did they need to do it? Did they need to do it then, even as they were bracing Canadians for a lonely holiday season?
The government took some heat from the usual quarters but even those fulminations rang hollow. Was the public simply too preoccupied to pay attention? Or is it more likely that the urgency of climate destruction is seeping into our bones? That the public at large increasingly “gets it.” That we have more and more political, economic and cultural leaders who sincerely understand the need to press forward?
We are all juggling multiple crises. While the pandemic is our most urgent priority, people have not forgotten about climate and don’t want their governments to do so, either.
It’s heartening to discover that Canadians want climate action to be the second-highest priority for the upcoming budget.
The Spotlight: People are as worried about climate as COVID
Public health is at the top of the agenda, of course. Climate and a green recovery come next, according to the poll from the University of Saskatchewan's Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.
That survey also asked about economic priorities beyond the next budget. “Protecting the income of citizens” was high, as you’d expect. But our bigger selves are still strong: an even larger proportion endorsed “reducing income inequalities.”
It’s worth quoting what the researchers found at the bottom of the pile:
“And speaking of the lowest-ranked priorities — those deserving the least support — oil and gas pipelines lead the way by a wide margin… The regional differences are not large. If this choice is the flip side of the green economy preference, the message is quite clear: Canadians are looking toward a post-fossil fuel economy.”
This is just one (small-ish) survey, but it mirrors what we’ve been seeing all through the pandemic. Climate change jumped to the top of voters’ priorities by the fall of 2019 following the youth-led mobilizations.
The pandemic kicked climate off the top of the agenda, but not from people’s concerns. In fact, Canadians are pretty much as worried about climate as COVID.
Those are findings from the Prairie Climate Centre at the University of Winnipeg (December 2020).
What’s even more encouraging is that the urgency to act on climate is actually increasing the longer the pandemic goes on. The sense of urgency is trending up.
I should pause here for some disclosure — I worked for Climate Access pulling together an overview of what Canadians really think about climate change this spring. What did we find?
Canadians overwhelmingly understand that climate breakdown is very serious and believe a transition to clean energy is inevitable.
As we build back from the pandemic, Canadians want the recovery to be green. At least six in 10 want a broad spending strategy integrating jobs, inequality, climate and racism. We’ve seen from the U.S. that combining economic justice and green investments makes the whole package more popular.
It’s true not everyone feels this way. This topic is polarized, notably with some Conservative voters and especially ones you might call “Northern Trumpists.” (If you’re interested in how right-wing, authoritarian populism is playing out in Canada, I really recommend this podcast.)
But one interesting note is that conservative women are just as likely to support a green recovery as women who vote for other parties.
PRO-TIP: We’re all trapped in this weird “climate silence” where most of us are worried, but we wildly underestimate everyone else’s concern. That causes unnecessary social paralysis. As Katharine Hayhoe, a great Canadian climate export, says, the most important thing you can do to fight climate change: talk about it.
And now for the latest news. I’ll start with the bad because several assessments of 2020 came out and we’ll need some good by the end...
We set ugly records for both carbon dioxide and methane.
Carbon dioxide hit 412 ppm last year. And methane set a record for the increase in a single year.
The U.S. agency that tracks these things reports that CO2 levels are now on par with the Mid-Pliocene Warm Period (3.6 million years ago).
“During that time sea level was about 78 feet higher than today, the average temperature was 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than in pre-industrial times, and studies indicate large forests occupied areas of the Arctic that are now tundra,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's research division.
(As terrifying as that sounds, it’s kind of a relief to see U.S. science agencies like NOAA free of Trump’s shackles and communicating the facts.)
Those CO2 levels were expected — the amount in the atmosphere is going to keep rising until we cut emissions to zero. But scientists were shaken by the methane numbers: “surprising and disturbing,” one of them said to the Financial Times.
The methane surge was bigger than anything since record-keeping began in 1983. Scientists can’t yet pinpoint the cause of the steep increase. "It is very scary indeed," says Euan Nisbet, professor of earth sciences at the University of London. (EcoWatch has a good summary, in case you don’t subscribe to the FT.)
As you may know, there’s not as much methane in the atmosphere as CO2, but it is a far more potent greenhouse gas. Roughly 60 per cent comes from human activities, including leaks from “natural gas” lines, livestock and the oil and gas industry. The Russian and U.S. industries emit by far the most, Canada’s petro industry ranks as the 10th in the world for methane emissions.
Forest destruction jumped
Destruction of the world’s forests took a major cut in the wrong direction last year. Tropical rainforests suffered the most. World Resources Institute estimates that “the resulting carbon emissions from this primary forest loss (2.64 Gt CO2) are equivalent to the annual emissions of 570 million cars, more than double the number of cars on the road in the United States.”
The biggest losses happened in Brazil where Jair Bolsonaro, the “Trump of the Tropics,” has reversed a long trend of improvement in Amazonian deforestation. Brazilian forest loss jumped 25 per cent last year.
Coal plants surge in China, drop in rest of the world
“A steep increase in coal plant development in China offset a retreat from coal in the rest of the world in 2020...”
That’s the big picture from Global Energy Monitor. It was “the first increase in global coal capacity development since 2015.”
Despite Donald Trump’s promises, the U.S. led the world in closing down coal, followed by the EU. But China added more than both put together.
It’s often said the climate battle will be won or lost in Asia. So, it’s important to look carefully across the continent because many Asian countries are taking stands against coal. Indonesia, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Vietnam moved to cancel 62 GW of planned coal power capacity. Pakistan has announced no new coal power.
In India, it looks like the era of building new coal plants is ending: “In India coal power capacity rose by just 0.7 GW in 2020 ... after rising by 7.0 GW in 2019. At the height of the country’s coal plant building from 2010 to 2017, the country increased its coal fleet by an average of 17.3 GW a year,” according to Global Energy Monitor.
Climate change has been holding back food production
Climate change is eating into farmers’ ability to increase the amount of food they grow. We’ve been able to keep food production rising along with population since the 1960s. But food production would be one-fifth higher if not for global warming — as much as 26 to 34 per cent higher in warmer regions like Africa and Latin America.
Bank directors’ conflicts
We saw last week that banks have put $3.8 trillion into fossil fuel companies in just the five years since the Paris Agreement. This week, Desmog dug into the fossil connections of the boards of the world’s big banks.
“Canada stands out in the analysis as the region with most ‘climate-conflicted’ bank directors who currently have ties to these high-emitting sectors... 62% of Canada’s bank directors have current connections to the high-carbon companies, compared to 44% for the US banks… When you include past and present connections, more than 82% of board members across Canada’s banks held positions in environmentally damaging companies.”
Scotiabank has Canada’s most conflicted board at 93 per cent. TD isn’t far behind at 92 per cent. Canada also ranks highest for directors connected to think tanks and lobby groups that campaign against climate laws. Almost one-quarter (24 per cent) of Canadian bank directors have such connections.
Climate activism around finance is booming: bank protests, pressuring pension funds, campaigns for divestment. And there’s no question that it’s having success. Some of the biggest players are moving and large institutions are divesting.
Last weekend, Bill McKibben reported BlackRock had studied the divest/invest movement and is now advising others there are “no negative financial impacts from divesting from fossil fuels. In fact, it found evidence of modest improvement in fund return.” Bill’s short history of the climate finance movement is well worth your time.
World added record renewables in 2020
Despite the slowdown from COVID-19, the world added 260 GW of new renewable capacity last year, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). That’s up almost 50 per cent over 2019, beating all previous records.
And renewables’ share of the pie also rose. More than 80 per cent of the world’s new electricity capacity was renewable last year. Solar and wind accounted for 90 per cent of that.
The head of IRENA is heralding a “decade of renewables.”
In more local news, Canada’s Morgan Solar switched on its 14 MW solar farm in Alberta (that’s utility scale — roughly energy for 3,000 homes). It’s potentially a very big deal because the company has developed a new twist on solar panels that boosts their output. They’re one of Canada’s big cleantech hopes — here’s their own promo.
British Columbians are juiced about EVs
The latest numbers are out, and B.C. is boasting the highest rate of EV adoption in North America.
Almost 10 per cent of new “light duty vehicles” were electric in 2020, so the province is well on track to beat its targets. There are now over 50,000 EVs on the road.
B.C. has a law requiring automakers to sell an increasing share of EVs and is one of the growing number of places in the world that’s set a date to phase out gas and diesel cars (2040 — later than California and some others, but let’s leave that for another day).
A long listen
CBC Ideas has a fascinating podcast on the metaphors and ways we talk around climate change. You’ll get to hear the very first climate PSA (from the 1950s, ugh). There’s good conversation about framing and values, war and pollution. And (spoiler) it ends with a surprise twist to the power of love.
A slender reed against the torrent of powerful industries and surging emissions? Perhaps. But also the kindling for incredible fierceness. The power to melt opposition.
I can’t help pondering that of all the tropes around climate, the most perennial is “future generations.” What’s that, if not an awkward appeal to our bigger, better selves? Those same selves that weren’t snuffed by self-preservation in this pandemic. The ones that continue to advocate for justice and nature and safety for people we will never know.
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