Tackling climate change in a post-pandemic world

26/10/2020 | 4 mins

Unlike financial crises, which can often be remediated emotionally by restoring people’s confidence in the markets, physical crises like COVID-19 can only be truly mitigated by addressing their root physical causes. Can we then, as individuals, governments, companies and civil society, realise this and use the current forced slow-down period as an opportunity to reimagine the way we behave?

Some people tell me this crisis will only move us backwards: the very low oil prices will delay our transition to clean energy, nationalism will get exacerbated, and the overall decrease in wealth will make investors even more short-sighted and risk-averse, pushing the much-needed low-carbon revolution further away from us.

But I am with those that see the glass half-full and realise that disruption has the potential to shift the current paradigm. It may be that the forced adjustments we have had to make in our daily lives, like less commuting and travel, will stay with us even after the crisis is gone, thereby reducing our transportation demand and carbon emissions. We may even begin to realise the world in which we now live is overly susceptible to widespread physical crises, making us re-think and re-build our businesses with more transparency and modularity in our supply chains and decreased Scope 3 carbon emissions. Perhaps our investors will make good use of the rock-bottom interest rates to invest in climate-proof infrastructures and low-carbon operations that not only create near-term jobs, but also incubate a cooperative global community that is much more resilient and prepared for upcoming climate-driven events.

I think this pandemic may mark the start of a widespread understanding of how connected we are as a global community, leading us to:

  • fully appreciate the importance of scientific expertise for addressing serious systemic issues
  • truly put environmental resiliency as a key pillar in our recovery plans, and
  • quickly act upon the largest threat humanity may ever face: the climate crisis.

What you and I do with our time and resources in the next couple of years will determine our future. Yes, let’s keep all hands on deck and defeat this virus, saving as many lives and livelihoods as possible; but let’s also use this crisis to breed fresh thinking and planning, allowing us to recover from this crisis under a system-wide decarbonisation of economies that makes them much more resilient to future environmental disruptions.

"Let’s use this forced disruption to do what we should have done already - work hard towards building a system that puts the wellbeing of our kids and grandkids at the forefront of everything we do."

Dr Julia Reisser
Dr Julia Reisser

As a scientist specialising in plastic pollution and solutions, my contribution to the decarbonisation of economies is developing new ways to decouple polymer production from fossil fuels. Over the past four decades, global plastics production has quadrupled. If we keep business as usual, by 2030 the greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production will be the equivalent to emissions from 300 new 500-megawatt coal plants, and by 2050 emissions from plastics will reach 15% of our global carbon budget.

To bring new thinking into this space, I will soon be sharing what I have learned about the causes and solutions to the plastic crisis in a UWA+ short course. This will be an opportunity for us to deepen our understanding of the plastics lifecycle; from its high-carbon production process to its eventual leakages into the land, air, and oceans. Based on this, we will then be able to better explore how plastic pollution impacts human health, climate change, and economies, as well as assess existing mitigation strategies that work both upstream (novel Circular Economy business models and replacement of plastics with biopolymers), and downstream (better composting and recycling systems).

I strongly believe we are inhabiting a unique time in history when we are provided with a blank page for a new beginning. Restarting our economy in the right direction requires a lot of insight and courage from you and me. Let’s use this forced disruption to do what we should have done already - work hard towards building a system that puts the wellbeing of our kids and grandkids at the forefront of everything we do.

Dr Julia Reisser
Research Fellow, Oceans Institute
The University of Western Australia

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