Published at 2020, March 25th
The temporary ecological outcomes caused by new coronavirus have been advertised as good news. However, in the long term, this is bad news for ecology and climate change-related problems which will most likely be left to a second level.
Certainly, the new coronavirus crisis has been having positive ecological effects in the short term. As we have seen in China’s forced lockdown that caused people to stay home, a huge decline in industrial activities followed. This led to a decrease in coal-powered electricity production and in the pollution that comes along with it.
This has been the case across the globe as government leaders ask or demand their citizens to stay home to stop the spread of the virus. Production decreases, there’s less pressure on resources, less fuel burnt in transportation, fewer carbon emissions, and less air pollution. However, all of this is temporary and in the long term, the environmental impacts of the coronavirus will probably relegate ecology to the background. Let’s understand why.
With The Coronavirus Crisis, We Are No Longer Speaking About Ecology
Before the coronavirus crisis the climate movement was clearly building up momentum and gaining traction. Civil disobedience movements like Friday’s for Future or Extinction Rebellion were all over the news. And within the scientific community, experts were having more ground to share their findings and concerns.
But since the start of the new coronavirus crisis, all of this mediatic momentum suddenly disappeared. We almost forgot about the unbelievable fires that just a couple of months ago were burning in Australia, in the Amazon forest or in California. It makes sense: in the midst of an imminent and scary problem with tangible consequences that threaten each and every one of us, who wants to hear about distant problems like climate change and biodiversity loss?
Despite considering these ecological issues crucial, at Youmatter we are finding it hard to talk about them as if nothing had happened. As if people’s minds weren’t (rightly) focused on issues of greater concern today like what is the national situation, how many people are infected or dead, how far from the infection peak we are. How to get essential items while reducing the risk of getting infected how, how to manage my business that’s no longer running or how to work from home while taking care of the kids.
The reality is that in the face of a crisis we are experiencing in the present, the crises of the future immediately seem less significant. There are other things to worry about. However, we must not believe that once the pandemic is gone and governments subsidize businesses things will return to how they were before and ecology will get momentum again. Quite the opposite, probably.
Economic Crisis And Ecology: Distinguishing Short Term And Long Term
After the health crisis, the economic and social crisis will have to be managed. We already know the economic consequences of the coronavirus will be tremendous. It is hard to give precise figures at this stage without speculating but some economists are talking about a crisis more serious than that of 2008-2009. For the ecological movement, this is also bad news.
Admittedly, there are hardly any doubts that at begging we will see improvements in environmental indicators as CO2 emissions decrease. Nonetheless, to defend the long-term social and economic impacts, the scenario the follows will most likely be the same as in the financial market crash in 2009.
In a society facing an economic crisis, the trend is almost always the same: all efforts are concentrated on “recovery”. The state injects lots of money into the banking system to encourage consumption, costs in “non-essential” sectors are cut to improve productivity, public budgets are redirected to towards stimulus policies … In short, a robust financial package will be put in place to stem the crisis. And what about ecology? It is left to the second level.
Ecology Is Not Vital For The (Very) Short-Term Economy
Public administrations, just like businesses and individuals will likely face the same challenges: they will need to carefully choose which battles they will be fighting.
On the business side, it will most likely mean allocating more resources to compensating for losses and lifting up the business than to CSR and the ecological transition. Probably more budget for marketing too, with eco-design gets less. The point is: it will be harder for companies to innovate to a blue market of ecological, organic or fair-trade products that often cost more. They won’t likely choose to go green.
Also because on the consumer side, there will be less money available to these, more expensive, products. Up to some point, this means a comeback to industrial products that are often cheaper and less sustainable. Similarly, on the employee side, people will have to work several hours of overtime each week as part of restructuring plans to compensate for income losses. A huge part of these people will likely be low-skilled workers who will keep getting low salaries while performing jobs they most likely dislike, they will survive to see the next day, not to start adopting green behaviors.
The same will be true for the State. Extraordinary budgets will be needed for recovery plans and they won’t feature the ecological transition – certainly not in a context where raising taxes will probably not be easily conceivable. Its priority will be employment and economic recovery. As for the environment, inequalities, education, they will keep not being an important and active concern.
A study carried out by the London School of Economics on public policies post-crisis of 2008 has shown it well: the pattern has been the same almost everywhere. First, banks are massively financed and there’s economic recovery through monetary creation and debt… followed by an austerity policy to reduce this debt. And you know austerity… it has nothing to do with consistent budgets for the challenges of the future.
Managing Concerns In Chronological Order
Society will certainly do what it does all the time: manage concerns in chronological order. The most urgent issues are dealt with first. And if the economic crisis is deep, then the urgency will be to restore employment, purchasing power and competitiveness.
Similarly, the speeches of environmental activists may find it much more difficult to pass through a political landscape in an economic crisis. Advocating the idea of putting ecology before the economy will most likely only work when the economy is doing well…
Therefore, it will be difficult to make those who go struggle to get to the end of the month understand that it will be necessary to sacrifice a little more in the name of the planet. The general population doesn’t accept these ideas, as the yellow vests in France have recently shown.
The Hypothesis Of A Paradigm Shift?
There then remains the hypothesis of a radical paradigm shift, like the one the French President Emmanuel Macron suggested some days ago. He spoke of bringing certain sectors (ecology, health, perhaps) out of the logic of the markets, playing on solidarity, redistribution, strengthening public services and financing long-term resilience. To continue to advance on the ecological transition and manage an economic crisis at the same time, it would indeed be towards this type of posture that we should tend to.
But, without even deciding on the sincerity of such intentions, a question remains: how can this vision be materialized? we live in a globalized economic system, where the ones winning in the market are the ones offering services and products at the lowest prices. And we soon live too in a context of crisis where this competition will even be exacerbated. So how can issues like more egalitarian taxation that doesn’t stop companies from recovering?
How can the economic machine be brought back to life while restricting its own fuel: its profits? And how can investments be made if the machine does not get alive again? Debt, maybe – but at what cost? Investments in green technologies and productions are usually less efficient (think of wind turbines vs oil) so they won’t likely be first choices.
The London School of Economics study provides some guidance: change our economic indicators, leave GDP behind and create ways of measuring value by betting in sectors such as waste reduction and management, the fight against inequalities, restructuring finance… In short, change the system.
For such a “new deal” to work, however, full cooperation from the major economic forces on the planet must be put in place. But do we really believe this can happen? The most likely scenario is that things happen as they always did during the economic and financial crises of the 20th century: recovery, austerity, recovery… until the next time. Ecology will wait. And probably be responsible for the next economic crises.
[Image credits to Shutterstock]