Energy & Environment

How COVID forced the planet’s luckiest raincheck

But commitments are one thing. Delivery is another.

To give you a sense of the challenge to deliver necessary emissions cuts, remember that in 2020 the pandemic temporarily shuttered billions of businesses around the world. As offices, factories and vehicles fell idle, global CO2 emissions fell by about 7 per cent.

Now imagine this: the UN says that if we are to keep the increase in temperatures to below 1.5 degrees, we will need to cut emissions by that same amount every single year for the next decade.

We can’t achieve those cuts by shutting down the world economy again. Instead, we will have to remake the global economy through a green industrial transition that will change the way we live and work.

COVID did the climate another favour by kickstarting important elements of that transition. The crisis forced governments to stimulate their economies, creating an opportunity for smart leaders to spend up big on climate measures. Biden’s $US2 trillion mega infrastructure stimulus, for example, includes support for electric cars, renewables and a clean-electricity standard that requires the American power system to be emissions-free by 2035.

Similarly, the European Commission has committed to spend 30 per cent of the EU’s recovery package on energy transition and climate action. And Canada’s COVID stimulus program focused on renewable generation and zero-emission transport infrastructure.

The pandemic also showed that our civilisation can tackle big problems. It showed us what’s possible when we trust our scientists and back technology.

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Australia’s Energy Minister, Angus Taylor, is right to recognise that technology is a critical part of the climate solution. It’s neither feasible nor moral to condemn developing countries to perpetual poverty by asking them to use less energy or slow their economic growth. Our only solution is technological breakthroughs that make it possible for developing countries to access cheap and reliable clean energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

The incredible speed and effectiveness with which COVID vaccines were developed should inspire us to invest more in climate-friendly technology. Technological advances have already reduced the cost of solar by 40 per cent and the cost of offshore wind power by more than 70 per cent over 10 years. We now need more breakthroughs in industrial processes, material science, green agriculture, carbon capture, terrestrial storage, hydrogen and batteries.

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COVID, for all its awfulness, gave us a lucky break on climate. It has set up the Glasgow summit for success and given us the confidence to tackle big global challenges guided by science and technology. Now we need to double down. Glasgow must lock in ambitious government commitments. After that the baton will be passed to us – as businesses, communities and individuals – to make it happen.

Dr Andrew Charlton is a managing director at Accenture and adjunct professor at Macquarie University’s e61 Institute. He was an economic adviser to former prime minister Kevin Rudd during the global financial crisis in 2008-2009.

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