• The Low Down

Lessons learned from the pandemic response

In February, the Wakefield-based La Pêche Coalition for a Green New Deal staged a protest against the now cancelled Tech Frontier Mine at MP Will Amos’s office in Chelsea. None of the demonstrators that day could have anticipated that within a few weeks a coronavirus pandemic would cause a swift and sharp decline in global greenhouse gas emissions – by some estimates as much as five per cent in 2020.  

The pain and loss caused by COVID-19 is unprecedented in modern times. Obviously it is a horrific and unsustainable way to reduce emissions and yet there are lessons to be learned that could help in combating the ongoing global climate crisis. 

Most remarkable is the plummeting use of fossil fuels. Scientists have already documented reductions in air pollution in China, Italy and New York City because of restrictions on human activity. Millions are breathing cleaner, fresher air. Venetians say they have never seen such clear water in their famous canals, mainly due to the dramatic decline in tourism. Traffic is no longer clogging roads. With no demand for flights, airlines have grounded planes. Cruise ships, which are floating sources of infection, remain docked. 

But experts are warning that without structural change, these emission declines will have little long-term impact on the concentrations of CO2 that have accumulated over decades. They say there’s an opportunity now for governments to invest at least part of their huge economic stimulus packages in lower emission energy sources and the development of clean technologies. 

At press time, the Canadian government had not yet released its bailout package for the country’s pandemic-ravaged oil and gas sector, which was already suffering from shrinking demand and a recent price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. 

On March 25, more than 260 academics wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking that he not bailout the sector. Last week, 56,000 online petitioners demanded that the government invest in sector workers, not shareholders. Finance Minister Bill Morneau has said that he’s looking at measures to protect hard-hit workers and their families, including creating jobs for cleaning up the tens of thousands of abandoned wells. 

CBC reports that when subsidies for the sector from the federal government (including its purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline and a plan to expand it) are added to Alberta’s financial support and investment in the industry, Canadian taxpayers could be “on the hook for somewhere between $7.7 billion and $15 billion in new support for an industry that was already receiving more than $3.3 billion a year in government subsidies.”

In an open letter earlier this year, writer Alice Munro and 22 other Nobel prizewinners – including scientists – called for an end in Canada to fossil fuel financing and expansion, along with an ambitious and just transition away from oil and gas production towards zero carbon by 2050. 

The pandemic has shown us that, given political courage and leadership, that kind of response to a global climate crisis is within our grasp.  

Paula Halpin is a writer living in Masham

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