Climate change on the threshold of the 2020s:Consequences and benefits of Covid-19

Between saying and doing lies the sea, in this case an increasingly polluted sea. Forests burn for days, biodiversity is increasingly at risk, in some cities the air is so polluted and almost unbreathable: climate change is a reality now more relevant than ever.

It is not surprising, then, that climate change, environmental degradation and overexploitation of resources are some of the biggest problems facing the international community today of which society at large-especially younger generations-is becoming increasingly aware.

As early as 1997, with the Kyoto Protocol, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) laid the groundwork for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Under the Kyoto mechanisms, parties were ranked according to emission levels, with a corresponding responsibility to reduce them by a given amount; thus, richer countries were given greater responsibility for reducing emissions than poorer countries (which is why, for example, the United States did not support the Protocol).

Despite broad support for the Protocol, global emissions over the past 20 years have grown rapidly, and climate change has remained a major international concern.

Average global temperatures have continued to rise, peaking between 2010 and 2019. The parallel increase in greenhouse gas emissions has contributed considerably to global warming, so much so that the European Earth Observation Program – Copernicus – has designated 2020 as the warmest year ever recorded in Europe.

On average, global temperature has increased by 0.94-1.03°C since the late 19th century, with potentially catastrophic long-term effects on the environment and climate. In order to curb this increase, the international community agreed – at COP21 – on the so-called Paris Agreement, whose aim is to keep global warming below 2°C.

Indeed, since the Paris Agreement places equal responsibilities on all parties, not only poorer countries are in a position where they have less room to develop their economies, but the asymmetries present in the distribution of wealth and political power are increasing. Moreover, because the global economic model is built on competition and growth, which are linked and translated into geopolitical power, it is unlikely that any country will adopt measures in the future that disproportionately damage its position on the world stage. However, despite these issues, the European Union has sought, and still seeks, to position itself as an international leader in issues of climate change resilience and sustainability, as well as to promote the importance of joint environmental action on the international stage and among the European population.

Although the official goal of global environmental policy has long been to limit global warming to below 2°C, a special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the state of global warming – published in 2018 – indicated that average global temperatures have increased by about 1°C since the pre-industrial era and predicted that average global warming is likely to reach an increase of 1.5°C between 2030 and 2050. The onset of the pandemic crisis in 2020 was certainly a game changer; the temporary slowdown in global greenhouse gas emissions due to significantly reduced economic activity in the first half of the year has, in fact, allowed the Earth to “breathe,” having led to 19 percent reductions in daily emission levels compared to April 2019. This has benefited the reduction of climate change risks, however, it is presumed that this slowdown will be temporary. The environmental benefits of the global economic slowdown due to COVID-19, however, extend far beyond lower greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, there has also been a significant decline in commercial fishing operations as the instability of global supply chains has prompted a renewed focus on strengthening local supply chains to support community fishers and reduce food insecurity risks. This, in turn, has also had indirect impacts on carbon footprints.

A further feature of the global response to the pandemic has been the willingness of most governments to rely on the advice of doctors and experts; a rationale that many commentators have urged to apply to global responses to climate change as well, arguing that the threats of climate change are far more widespread and enduring.

Francesca Teresi

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