Robert Pollin: Climate Crisis and the Coronavirus


There are multiple ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic intersects, amplifies, and accelerates the climate crisis.

To begin, while the immediate health crisis is likely to end within the next 12 – 18 months, there will be no such recovery from the consequences of global warming unless we succeed to deliver a global Green New Deal.

How do I define the global Green New Deal? I start from the October 2018 assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): to avoid surpassing the 1.5 degrees maximum global mean temperature increase target for 2100, global net CO2 emissions must fall by about 45 percent by 2030, and reach net zero by 2050. By my definition, the core task of the global Green New Deal is to advance a global project to hit these IPCC targets, and to accomplish this in a way that also expands decent job opportunities and raises mass living standards for working people and the poor throughout the world.

As a purely analytic proposition and policy challenge—independent of the myriad political and economic forces arrayed around these matters—it is entirely realistic to allow that global CO2 emissions can be driven to net zero by 2050. By my higher-end estimate, it will require an average level of investment throughout the global economy of about 2.5 percent of global GDP per year, focused in two areas: 1) dramatically improving energy efficiency standards in the stock of buildings, automobiles and public transportation systems, and industrial production processes; and 2) equally dramatically expanding the supply of clean renewable energy sources—primarily solar and wind power—available at competitive prices relative to fossil fuels and nuclear power, to all sectors and in all regions of the globe. These investments will also need to be complemented in other areas, the most important of which is to stop deforestation and support afforestation.

Where does the money come from to pay for all this? We need to apply some simple standards of fairness in answering this question. That is, those who are primarily responsible for causing climate change also must be ones footing the bill. This means first recognizing that, looking over the full industrial era, the now high-income countries, starting with the U.S., but also Western Europe, and Japan, were the ones who loaded up the atmosphere with CO2 emissions. Moving to the present, it is also the case that high-income people in all countries and regions have massively larger carbon footprints than everyone else. The high-income countries and high-income people within all countries should therefore be the ones primarily paying for the Green New Deal. Working from that starting point, details on financing are not difficult to develop. But it is also critical to recognize that these investments will pay for themselves over time, through dramatically raising energy efficiency levels and providing abundant clean renewable energy at average prices that are already at parity or lower today than those for fossil fuels and nuclear, and falling.

The consumption of oil, coal, and natural gas must also fall to zero over this same 30-year clean energy investment period. The rate of decline can begin at a relatively modest 3.5 percent in the initial years of the transition program, but will then increase every year in percentage terms as the base level of fossil fuel supply contracts to zero or near-zero by 2050. Of course, both privately-owned fossil fuel companies, such as Exxon-Mobil and Chevron, and publicly-owned companies like Saudi Aramco and Gazprom in Russia, have massive interests in preventing reductions in fossil fuel consumption, backed by enormous political power. These powerful vested interests will simply have to be defeated. I return to this issue below.

Within this framework, it is critical to highlight several further points of intersection between the pandemic and the imperative of advancing a global Green New Deal. A primary underlying cause of the Covid-19 outbreak and other recent epidemics, including Ebola, West Nile and HIV, is the destruction of animal habitats through deforestation and related human encroachments, as well as the disruption of remaining habitat through the increasing frequency and severity of heat waves, drought and flood. As the science journalist Sonia Shah wrote in February 2020, habitat destruction increases the likelihood that wild species “will come into repeated intimate contact with the human settlements expanding into their newly fragmented habitats. It’s this kind of repeated, intimate contact that allows the microbes that live in their bodies to cross over into ours, transforming benign animal microbes into deadly human pathogens.”

It is also likely that people who are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution will have faced significantly more severe health consequences that those who have been breathing cleaner air. Aaron Bernstein of Harvard’s Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment writes that “air pollution is strongly associated with people’s risk of getting pneumonia and other respiratory infections and with getting sicker when they do get pneumonia. A study done on SARS, a virus closely related to Covid-19, found that people who breathed dirtier air were about twice as likely to die from the infection.”

Air pollution, in turn, can be divided into two distinct categories—outdoor and indoor pollution. In addition to being the main cause of climate change, burning oil, natural gas and especially coal to produce energy is the most significant cause of outdoor air pollution. Coal combustion releases toxic levels of sulfur dioxide and soot particulates, while burning oil and natural gas as well as coal releases toxic amounts of nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere. Another major source of outdoor pollution is wildfires. Climate change causes more frequent and severe wildfires, such as occurred dramatically Northern California in 2019, and with still greater force in Australia in 2020. These intense wildfires result from the combination of heavier than normal rainy periods producing excessive vegetation, which then becomes fuel during the extended months of heat waves and drought. A third main factor contributing to outdoor air pollution is burning biomass to produce energy. In other words, the project to build a global clean energy infrastructure to supplant both fossil fuels and high-emissions bioenergy will also serve to eliminate most major sources of outdoor air pollution.

Another connection that has been raised widely over the initial months of the Covid-19 pandemic has been that the responses in the countries that have handled the crisis relatively effectively, such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, demonstrate that governments are indeed capable of taking decisive and effective action in the face of a crisis. The point is that where the political will is strong and the public sectors are relatively competent, similarly decisive interventions could be successful in dealing with the climate crisis.

There are elements of truth to such views, but we also should be careful to not push the point too far. For example, some commentators have argued that a silver lining outcome from the pandemic is that, due to the economic lockdown, CO2 emissions are plunging along with overall economic activity. Estimates are that emissions could fall by 5 percent or more over 2020. However, I do not see any positive lessons here with respect to advancing a viable emissions program that can get us to net zero emissions by 2050. In my view, the experience rather demonstrates why we cannot rely on something like a de-growth framework as a viable path to climate stabilization, through which we would deliberately reduce the overall level of economic activity in order to bring emissions down. Emissions will fall sharply over the coming year due to the pandemic and recession. But that is only because incomes are collapsing and unemployment is spiking—and even with that, the emissions reduction is likely to be only in the range of 5 percent. Our current situation therefore reinforces for me the conclusion that the Green New Deal offers the only effective climate stabilization path, since it is the only one that does not require a drastic contraction of jobs and incomes to drive down emissions.

That said, a truly positive development emerging from the pandemic and recession is that various progressive activists are fighting to include Green New Deal investments into their respective countries’ economic stimulus programs. It is critical to keep pushing these initiatives forward and making sure they succeed. This is because large-scale investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy will provide a strong foundation for long-term economic recovery. Among other things, they will generate roughly 2-3 times the number of jobs per million dollars of spending relative to maintaining the existing fossil-fuel dominant energy infrastructure. Jobs will open up in all countries at all levels of development, including for carpenters, machinists, environmental scientists, secretaries, accountants, truck drivers, roofers, agricultural laborers, and many others. As of 2030, as a rough lower-end figure, I estimate that clean energy investments on the order of 2.5 percent of global GDP will generate about 150 million jobs worldwide.

However, it is also critical to pay serious attention to issues around how best to time the launch of various components of Green New Deal projects. The aim here is to maximize both the short-term stimulus benefits, in addition to the longer-term impacts of Green New Deal programs. I know how important such considerations are from personal experience working on the green investment components of the 2009 Obama stimulus program in the United States, in which $90 billion of the $800 billion total was allocated to clean energy investments. The principles underlying the green investment components of the Obama stimulus were sound. But the people working on the program in its various stages, including me, did not adequately calculate the time realistically required to get many of the projects up and running. We knew then that it was critical to identify “shovel-ready” projects that could be implemented on a large scale quickly to provide an immediate economic boost. But relatively few green investment projects were truly shovel-ready at the time. One important reason for this was that the green energy industry was then a newly emerging enterprise. The backlog of significant new projects was thin. It is only moderately less thin today in virtually all countries.

This means that people designing Green New Deal stimulus programs need to identify the subgroup of green investment projects that can realistically roll into action at scale within a matter of months. One good example that should be applicable across many different settings would be energy efficiency retrofits of all public and commercial buildings. This would entail improving insulation, sealing window frames and doors, switching over all lightbulbs to LEDs, and replacing aging heating and air conditioning systems with efficient ones, preferably, where possible, with heat pumps. Programs of this sort could generate large numbers of jobs quickly for secretaries, truck drivers, accountants and climate engineers as well as for construction workers. It will also deliver significant energy savings, and thereby reduced emissions, quickly and at relatively low cost. Building off such truly shovel-ready projects, the ramping up of the rest of the clean energy investment program can then provide a strong foundation for economies as they move out of recession and on to a longer-term sustainable recovery path.

As an additional critical measure to advance a global Green New Deal, the moment is now ripe to nationalize the fossil fuel industry everywhere, given that it is presently on life support, due to the collapse of demand and the price of oil. Thus, the combined market value of the US energy sector fell by 46 percent in the early months of 2020, from $1.27 trillion to $700 billion. This means that the US federal government could purchase a controlling interest in the entire industry for around $350 billion. This is equal to only about half of the credit and grants the US government has thus far provided to small businesses through its stimulus programs, and is less than 10 percent of the bond purchases that the Federal Reserve is expected to undertake in the coming months to bail out Wall Street. Once the fossil fuel industry has been nationalized, it can be put out of business over the next 20 – 30 years through a deliberate program that provides maximum transitional support for the workers and communities who presently depend on the industry for their well-being.

Overall then, we face an unprecedented two-headed crisis with the pandemic and economic collapse. We need to seize this historical moment to demonstrate unambiguously how a global Green New Deal can form the core of an economic recovery program and provide the only viable path toward climate stabilization. This is because the global Green New Deal, as a climate stabilization project, is also fully consistent with the equally critical goals of expanding decent work opportunities, raising mass living standards, and fighting poverty in all regions of the world.

Robert Pollin is Distinguished University Professor of Economics and Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His forthcoming book with Noam Chomsky is Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet (Verso), from which parts of this article have been adapted.

Photo: Billy Wilson

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