The South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, has formally pledged that the country will become carbon neutral by 2050. This commitment to achieving net-zero emissions within the next 30 years is not an unprecedented step, but is in line with recent global efforts to tackle climate change.
Major world economies have now vowed to end their dependence on coal and replace it with other forms of renewable resources as part of their Green New Deal, which involves a shift towards renewable energy and energy storage systems, as well as low-carbon energy systems. In 2019, the European Union set itself a similar target, with EU leaders agreeing to make their then 28 member states carbon neutral by 2050. Japan quickly followed suit with Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga making an ambitious pledge to accelerate the country’s global warming targets. China, the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, has promised to become carbon neutral by 2060, and vowed to begin cutting its emissions within the next ten years. It must not be underestimated how bold and ambitious these targets actually are.
Indeed, Joojin Kim, managing director, from Seoul-based NGO Solutions for Our Climate, has warned that: “there is much to be done to make this declaration actually meaningful”. It is important to note that there is a key difference between a target being symbolic and it actually being realistic and attainable.
This article will discuss why major world economies, some of whom continue to make coal a central part of their energy mix, have made the surprising decision to commit to cleaner energy forms. It will also discuss how and why the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic might have incentivised these countries to act. Finally, it will argue that even as governments deal with the effects of an unprecedented global pandemic, it remains critical that the increasing and irreversible threat of climate change is not forgotten.
A ‘Clean and Green Transition?’
The Covid-19 pandemic has posed many challenges to societies and economies around the world. The most pressing priority for governments has been to mitigate the health crisis, save and protect lives and search for an effective vaccine. However, it is imperative that the threat of climate change is not cast aside. Indeed, one of the most valuable lessons we have learnt from global lockdowns is the notable reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases. Research by the Global Carbon Project has shown that industrial shutdowns have caused an estimated 25% drop in CO2 emissions in February 2020, in comparison to February 2019. Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology from University College London (UCL), has urged that: “The real lesson of this pandemic is that we must globally shift our energy production away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible if we are to ensure sustained year-on-year cuts to our global emissions.”.
India’s air pollution crisis has received large media attention, with a 2018 study finding that unclean air quality caused in the region of 670,000 deaths in the previous year. Following the nationwide lockdown in India, research has found that pollution levels across the country have slowed dramatically, and that there has been a significant improvement in air quality. Indeed, some estimates have shown that after just four days of lockdown, there was up to a 40-50% improvement in air quality in Central and Eastern Delhi. However, following this brief period of respite, India’s capital city has returned to its pre-lockdown, harmful levels of pollution. This inevitable return has shown that governments cannot be reliant on lockdowns and circumstantial events to solve climate change. If countries are to truly move towards a clean and green transition, there needs to be a longer term, more effective solution.
There is a considerable body of research which has shown how exposure to pollution can be detrimental to individuals’ health and why governments need to respond now to this pressing public health issue. These health problems include the development of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, the loss of lung capacity and decreased lung function and the creation, or worsening, of illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema and lung cancer. Though mitigating the climate threat was a priority of many governments, the unprecedented effects of Covid-19 have been a catalyst for leaders to recognise how multiple health threats can interact.
“No Vaccine for the Planet”
With the news that the United Kingdom has become the first country in the world to approve a Covid-19 vaccine, UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres has warned that “there is no vaccine for the planet”, and urges that it is time “to build a truly global coalition towards carbon neutrality”. Though the prioritisation of health remains key for most governments, Guterres has stressed that such efforts should not deviate from the climate threat.
The Covid-19 pandemic has seen a renewed interest in countries’ ramping up their climate ambitions, with many coming together to achieve the goal of becoming carbon neutral. Though large decreases in transportation have caused a drop in daily carbon global emissions, research has found CO2 levels in the atmosphere have still reached their “highest monthly average ever recorded in May”. This is due to the fact that too much damage has already been done and the effects of such a mass build-up of CO2 are now irreversible. As Guterres has stressed: “the heating of our planet has not let up”. It is clear that there has been a real shift in mindset, with countries now developing more “risk management systems” to recognise the range of health threats. Though this commitment was incentivised during the pandemic, there have been predictions cast that following this pandemic, this trend will continue.
How realistic is this carbon-neutrality target?
Whilst the incentive to achieve net zero emission targets has never been stronger, it begs the question, is it actually achievable by those countries who have made the pledge?
According to a study conducted by the Global Energy Monitor (GEM) and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, new coal projects are being approved on a daily basis in China. Christine Shearer, GEM’s coal programme director, has expressed doubt about China moving away from coal, stating that the country has made it a key part of their energy mix. According to the Global Energy Monitor data, though China has made the pledge to accelerate efforts towards carbon neutrality, at the same time, it plans to build more coal-burning power plants. Our Climate has also warned that China would need to overhaul its current coal policy to meet their 2060 goal, and then this would require a “complete inversion” of their existing fossil fuel system. The organisation has also labelled coal as an “addiction” for the country.
Doubts have also been expressed about Japan’s ability to turn carbon neutral, a country which had previously committed to an 80% carbon reduction by 2050. The International Energy Agency has stated that: “a large number of unparalleled changes across all parts of the energy sector would need to be realised simultaneously”. Such an effort is difficult when we consider the vast population increase in Japan. In addition, South Korea currently relies on coal for approximately 40% of its electricity generation and renewables comprise less than 6%. With the world trying to recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, at a time when the transmission is rising and the death toll accelerating, concerns have been raised as to whether this carbon neutrality goal is actually feasible.
Does this pledge act as an incentive to other countries?
Major economies have committed to net-zero carbon emissions, making it a real goal of foreign policy. However, it will be interesting to see whether this commitment places pressures on other major greenhouse gas emitters such as Australia and the US to try and attain the same goals and step up their climate ambitions. Both Australia and the US have been criticised for their approach towards climate change, specifically for setting their climate reduction targets too low. In addition, President Trump has been criticised for his “negative stance” and “retrogression” towards this emergency. Climate change has created so much damage to the planet that it can aptly be described as a “shadow pandemic”. This shadow pandemic needs a global collective effort to fight it. Such an effort is impossible however, without strong commitments from all countries to act now.
The Covid-19 pandemic has substantially reduced industrial activity and with it, the impact of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. However, in doing so, it has also shown the huge scale of change which is needed to reverse the disastrous consequences of climate change. Global lockdowns have not cast aside the threat of climate change but rather, reinforced that action needs to be taken now. With this valuable lesson comes a renewed effort to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions within the next 30 years. These bold targets, set by countries who are the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, will have come as a surprise to many researchers, citizens and governmental bodies themselves. Whether this goal is symbolic or is actually realistic and attainable, however, remains to be seen.
Rohini Anand is a MSc student in International Social and Public Policy from the London School of Economics.
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