COVID-19 vaccines have been developed in record time. Can that impetus and Gen Z help the world tackle the complex problem of climate change?
Participants in the Youth Climate Strike in Rzeszow, Poland, 25 September 2020 (EPA-EFE/DAREK DELMANOWICZ)
Vaccines against COVID-19 offer the world its best chance to drag itself back from the pandemic cliff edge and will in time return our lives to something like normal.
But where does that leave a planet facing the even bigger peril of climate change?
The stellar success of the vaccine development programme, which has cut to a few months what used to take pharmaceutical companies up to 10 years, has shown what can be achieved.
Throughout history, there have been cataclysmic events, such as wars or plagues, that have each marked a fundamental shift in society. Can the same sort of impetus be found to tackle climate change, a hugely more complex challenge?
The omens are not particularly bright, climate experts say. But the new U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and his climate envoy John Kerry offers some hope as the United States returns to the world stage following four years of retreat under former President Donald Trump.
Gen Z has a major role to play in climate change.
Gen Z, which makes up around 30% of the global population, has a big role to play. Climate activists like Sweden’s Greta Thunberg take every opportunity to lambast political leaders for not doing enough to keep the planet safe and have inspired many others to take to the streets in protest.
Rohitesh Dhawan, a London-based climate specialist at the Eurasia political risk consultancy, says Gen Z represents a very important trend as the bulge of young people born between the mid-to-late 1990s and 2010 reach voting age.
“I do think we are in the midst of an important demographic change that will see people express their preferences for healthier, natural environments in ways that previous generations haven’t,” he said in an interview. “And this gives them a window of opportunity to lay down their views on that very clearly.”
One of Biden’s first policy announcements when he took office in January was to bring the United States back into the Paris Climate Agreement, the framework designed to keep the globe within two degrees centigrade of pre-industrial levels and stop runaway warming.
Many of the executive actions he signed in his first few days in the White House wound back or reversed the actions of Trump, who spent four years mocking climate science, withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement and diluted or killed off many environmental controls.
The coronavirus has shown we can be more respectful of the environment.
Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank, told a recent webinar organised by The Economist magazine that young people had identified the values they respected and that political leaders had not done a stellar job of addressing those concerns.
“We have learned through the pandemic that, yes, it is possible to operate in a different way, that is more respectful of climate and more respectful of biodiversity and nature at large. So that makes me a little bit more optimistic,” she said.
So far, Biden has promised to double offshore wind generation by 2030, which with big gains in solar power could create one million new jobs. Longer-term, however, he will need the support of a closely balanced Congress to push through substantial measures to get the United States on the way to reaching a goal of net-zero climate-warming emissions by 2050.
“There will be a say-do gap between what Biden says and what he can do on net-zero emissions by 2050,” Dhawan said. “But the fact that he will be on the global stage talking about this and trying to rally other countries around his vision, and has an elder statesman like John Kerry in a very powerful position, means that his impact on the rest of the world will be significant. He will pull other countries along, some kicking and screaming, and some very willingly.”
Kerry is organising a summit of major emitting nations to mark Earth Day on April 22 and has promised before that to announce specific U.S. targets to lower global warming emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases. Experts expect him to pledge America to cut emissions by 40-50% below 2005 levels by 2030.
If he keeps the baseline for cutting emissions at 2005, that promise will be substantially weaker than those of the European Union or Britain. The EU has pledged to cut emissions by 55% over 1990 levels by 2030, while Britain has set itself the goal of reducing emissions by 68% below 1990 levels by the same date.
Not all is gloom and doom.
The European Union’s 750 billion-euro COVID-recovery fund designed to help the bloc’s 27 members climb back out of the economic hole caused by the coronavirus pandemic stipulates that 30% percent of the money should go to climate measures.
China, the world’s biggest emitter in absolute terms, says it plans to reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2060, 10 years after many other nations, but has yet to pledge shorter-term objectives other than to say its emissions should peak by 2030.
China, the United States and Europe together make up the bulk of global emissions, and aggressive pledges by them could lead the way at the COP26 United Nations climate talks in Glasgow in November. At the talks, all nations taking part must come up with fresh commitments demanded by the Paris Agreement.
Complicating relations between the three, particularly between Beijing and Washington, are conflicts over trade, human rights in China and that nation’s dominance of the global supply chain for clean energy technology.
“I think the China-U.S. dynamic on climate will indeed be ringfenced from other sources of tension in the relationship,” Dhawan said, pointing to China’s history of under-promising but over-delivering on environmental issues.
Experts say nations meeting at COP26 need to agree to rid the world of coal for power generation, fix the rules for a global carbon trading-and-offsetting system and make sure rich nations dig deep into their pockets to provide the funds needed by poor countries to make the transition to a decarbonised world.
Not all is doom and gloom. 2020 was the greenest year on record for Britain’s electricity system, which plans to be carbon-free by 2025. Wind and solar power broke records several times, and the country went for almost 68 days without using coal generation — the longest coal-free run since the Industrial Revolution.
“We have to come to Glasgow with no excuses,” Kerry told a sustainable development summit organised by The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi this month. “We don’t have time to point fingers. We have to break barriers between us. This is our last best chance to get to net-zero.”
Three questions to consider:
- Why is Gen Z important to the climate debate?
- How is the Biden administration in the United States changing the dynamic over climate?
- Do you think the world’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has improved the prospects for action on climate?
Malcolm Davidson worked for four decades as a journalist in Europe, Asia and Australasia. He served as correspondent with Reuters in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Philippines, and reported widely from other parts of Asia. He also worked in Brussels and most recently was the London-based editor of Reuters’s Front Page multimedia news service.