Covid can teach us how to fight climate change

That’s the Canberra Times headline for my latest article. It’s paywalled, and hasn’t yet gone up on Inside story, so the text is over the fold.

The latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are predictably grim, but in a sense, irrelevant. The scientific debate over climate change has been over for some time, and the reality of climate change is now evident for anyone who chooses to look.

Until about five years ago, debates on climate policy lined up extensive evidence of rising global temperatures and model predictions about worse things to come against statistical quibbles and “sceptical” arguments which came down to “scientists are always predicting disaster and it never happens”

But in 2021, we no longer need to look at models to see the disastrous impacts of climate change, arriving faster and causing more destruction than most of the modellers thought possible. For Australians, and many others around the world, climate change has emerged I the form of almost unstoppable bushfires. For those who have yet to feel climate change directly, the Covid pandemic provides life experience of long-predicted disaster that has turned out worse than most people thought possible.

Even this direct experience has turned out not to matter much. The New England area, represented in Parliament by Barnaby Joyce was devastated by fire in 2019. But that hasn’t shifted Joyce from a denialist/donothingist position and probably won’t cost him his seat at the next election. The same is true, in spades, of Covid. Conservatives who have seen friends and relatives die around them continue to insist that the whole thing is a hoax. There’s now a whole genre of stories (reminiscent of deathbed conversion narratives) where people dying of the disease finally urge their friends to get vaccinated, or, occasionally go their graves still denying everything.

But, despite all this resistance, we have collectively made enormous efforts to control Covid. We have, for the most part, accepted handwashing, social distancing, masks, travel restrictions and periodic lockdowns even while being unsure which measures will work and which will turn out to be unnecessary. Now that vaccines have become available, the majority of the population has rushed to protect themselves and everyone else. And there is increasingly little patience for the selfish or misguided minority who refuse, even when given every opportunity to get vaccinated. The only way to protect ourselves and our children from this group is by keeping them isolated from the rest of us, effectively continuing the same restrictions we have all gone through until now.

The contrast with climate change is striking. We know, from looking at successful examples, that we can greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions at costs too small to be detectable in the aggregate econoy. It’s easy enough to show that we could eliminate nearly all

By 2025, most European countries will have eliminated coal-fired electricity; several have already done so. The main policy instrument used to achieve this goal has been an emissions trading scheme which requires firms burning coal, iron or gas to buy a tradeable permit. The permit price was below 10euros/tonne for some years, but has now risen to 50euros/tonne. Since generating a megawatt-hour of electricity using coal emits roughly a tonne of carbon dioxide, the scheme effectively adds around … to the cost of coal-fired electricity, with a smaller effect on gas-fired electricity.

Since the emissions allowed under the scheme are currently around 1.5 billion tonnes, the annual value of permits used is around 75 billion euros, or around 0.5 per cent of total GDP in the EU. This value is not an economic loss, but a transfer from polluters to society as a whole. The actual economic cost is even smaller.

The same point can be illustrated by Australian experience. The short-lived carbon tax/price had a significant impact on emissions. But despite Tony Abbott’s claims about a ‘wrecking ball’ through the economy, neither the imposition of the tax nor its removal had any measurable effect on GDP or other measures of aggregate performance.

Ending coal is only a first step. But an extension of the same policies, for example, a doubling of the EU carbon price, would see a rapid replacement of gas-fired electricity with a combination of solar, wind, battery storage and other zero-carbon options. And even if the economic impact were quadrupled it would still be so small as to be undetectable against the background of ordinary economic fluctuations, let alone crises like the pandemic.

If the electricity supply were decarbonized, electrifying the vehicle fleet would eliminate emissions from road transport. Again, we have examples to show how easy this would be. Norway has committed to ending sales of internal combustion engines. Already, electric vehicles account for more than half of new car sales and around 20 per cent of the total car fleet. This outcome was achieved with a mix of fairly modest measures, such as exemptions from purchase taxes and parking fees. As the cost of electric vehicles has declined, some of the more generous measures have been scaled back.

A number of national governments have now committed to ending sales of internal combustion engines, and car manufacturers have announced plans to switch to production of electric vehicles. But current policies will leave lots of petrol and diesel vehicles on the road well past 2040. Incentives on the scale of those being offered in Norway, combined with a hard deadline on the removal of internal combustion vehicles from the roads, announced now, could put an end to transport-related emissions by 2035.

The main economic cost would be the scrapping of vehicles before the end of their usable life. But owners could be compensated with a version of the ‘cash for clunkers’ scheme used in the US a few years ago. This isn’t an elegant policy solution, but when we are faced with the prospect of destroying the global climate, we can’t afford to worry about such things.

Other policy responses, including drastic limits on air travel, might seem more draconian. But we have all put up with near-total bans on international travel, and lots of constraints on domestic travel, imposed with little or no notice in response to pandemic outbreaks. Replacing business travel with Zoom has turned out to be easy. As for recreational travel, a very simple response would be to replace frequent short ‘getaways’ with the longer holidays, taken once a year or less, that were normal in the 20th century. This would allow substitution of trains for planes in many cases.

We have more time to act on climate than we did on Covid. But that time is running out, and we are not using it well.

14 thoughts on “Covid can teach us how to fight climate change

  1. Good piece. We know how to do this.

    The share of PHEVs in new car sales in Norway is now up to 84.7% (July 2021): Note that Norway is a spread-out country like Australia, with long driving distances once you venture away from Oslo. More significantly, the PHEV share was 23.8% in the far larger German market in June:

    Agreed on getaways. JQ’s argument dovetails with the important proposition, a corollary of the very plausible efficiency wages theory, that information asymmetries in the labour market lead not only to equilibrium unemployment but to equilibrium excess working hours and weeks. The French get this right: high labour participation rates from subsidized child care, a reasonable working week, and long holidays. Nanny state power!

  2. There is a lot of ruin in a country. There is a lot more ruin in a neoliberal country. There is vastly more ruin in a neoloiberal global economy and the Holocence climate and ecology. Yet all these ruinings, as processes, still have a limit. At some point, the ruin if not turned around, must become outright collapse. The scientists, the philosophers and the prophets are always predicting disaster. Yet, the people never listen and disaster comes, seemingly inevitably. The Australian LNP and even Labor Party remain denialist do-nothings. So do most of the populace, in my opinion.

    Perhaps the people are “Okay-but-what-can-I-doists?” As in, “I agree, but I am powerless so what can I do about it?” I think the people are powerless in this system, at least until they outright revolt. Nothing else works to change this system. It’s all been tried and it has all failed. The power in this system belongs to the oligarchs and CEOs who control a lot financial assets and/or real assets. The “Capital as Power” theorists are correct, in my opinion. Thus, without radically destroying the power of private money and private property, this civilization and the planet cannot be saved.

    While saying that, the converse is not necessarily true. Destroying the power of private money and private property will not necessarily save the world or homo sapiens. In the first instance, private, monied and asseted power will fight back with deadly reactionary force and very likely win. In the second instance, in order for any revolutionary force to defeat such pitiless reactionary force it must be even more terroristic and pitiless so we know what that government will look like. In the third instance, we have already overhot the world’s capacities and an irreversible runaway collapse process has already begun.

    There is also a fourth instance. Humans are not congenitally capable, in the main and at their current level of evolution, of properly conceptualizing and acting upon collapse dangers. There is an evolutionary psychology explanation for this. We are somatically and neurologically evolved to react deeply to proximal dangers. We are not evolved to react so viscerally to logically calculated and intellectually apprehended dangers. We say: “Oh that’s interesting. It generates some dystopian frission in me. Maybe even some existential angst.” Then that frission or angst goes into more calculation and thinking in the professional metier that gave rise to it or else it goes into more displacement activity consumption gleefully provided by the system we build to destroy ourselves and the world.

    “Truth is like poetry. And everyone hates f***ing poetry.” – Quote from “The Big Short”.

    Strange thing. I like poetry. I think I will read more again. My choice of a non-destructive displacement activity, I guess. I must say watching the Big Short for a second time (one-eyed after my third major eye surgery) gave me a feeling that the “Big COVID Lie” in Australia is Australia’s Big Short moment. I mean it is when you realize how profoundly duplicitous and dangerous the leaders are (Morrison and Berejiklian) and what a dreadful disaster they are leading everybody in to. It’s when you realize that absolutely the WHOLE power system is corrupt and it has corrupted most of the easily misled people too, It is SO corrupt and blind, along with the misled people, it seems inconceivable that there can be any hope.

  3. Off topic.

    Ikon says “I like poetry. I think I will read more again. My choice of a non-destructive displacement activity, I guess.”

    Here is the perfect non destructive displacement therapy Ikon. As for a productive value, I have my doubts. Certainly for some, a mental health boost. I will use procedutal text generation for a game my kid came up with re adaptation. Great concept, inverse of shoot em ups, yet still first and very simple attempt at;
        “Nature doesn’t seem to be doing too well (which means that you probably won’t be healthy for long, either). You can set off to survey the land that remains, savoring its tranquility and taking it in to the soothing music and sounds of the bird calls as you wander. As you walk, you’ll stumble upon tokens that will inspire verses of poetry, the words coming to life in your footsteps. After you collect a few of these poems, you can bring them back to the game’s central location to help restore a vital tree that lies there.’
    “‘Wayfinder’ Heals Nature Through Exploration & Crafted Poetry

    “Wayfinder finds us wandering a dying land, finding words as we explore the wilderness that we can craft into poetry that revives this place.”


  4. James, 2027 and maybe we can buy a ‘blue’ green Volvo. Fossil fuel free steel.

    “SSAB delivers the world’s first fossil-free steel to Volvo Group 

    “The goal is to deliver fossil-free steel to the market and demonstrate the technology on an industrial scale as early as 2026. Using HYBRIT technology, SSAB has the potential to reduce Sweden’s total carbon dioxide emissions by approximately ten percent and Finland’s by approximately seven percent.

    “We’ll be converting to electric arc furnace in Oxelösund as early as 2025. This is the first production site within SSAB to make the transition, and it means that we’ll already be cutting large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions then.

    “A value chain for fossil-free steel
    “Steel can be manufactured by recycling or by using iron ore as raw material. In the HYBRIT process, iron ore, in the form of iron ore pellets, is used as the raw material. The ore, which is mined in LKAB’s mines for further processing in SSAB’s steelwork, is enriched and sintered into iron ore pellets. Today, the sintering is done with fossil fuels but, in the framework for the HYBRIT initiative, trials are underway to use biofuels in LKAB’s ore processing plant instead.

    “The iron ore pellets are currently shipped to SSAB’s plants, in Luleå, Oxelösund in Sweden and Brahestad in Finland, for further processing. The iron ore is an oxide in which the iron is combined with oxygen and, to produce steel, the oxygen must be removed from the ore. Today, the oxygen is removed (reduced) from the iron ore using carbon and coke in SSAB’s blast furnaces. The raw iron that is tapped from the blast furnace is liquid and moves on in that form through the steel manufacturing process until, as raw steel, it is poured out as slabs.

    “The HYBRIT process means that the oxygen is removed instead from the iron ore using fossil-free hydrogen, this takes place in a reduction shaft. The result is sponge iron (direct reduced iron), which is a solid product with the same shape as the iron ore pellets that were fed into the reduction shaft. In the HYBRIT process, the sponge iron is then smelted in an Electric Arc Furnace (EAF). The process is made fossil-free by using fossil-free electricity and by increasing the use of non-fossil additives instead of fossil carbon.

    “In the HYBRIT process, fossil-free hydrogen is central. This is produced by the electrolysis of water and it is used in the direct reduction to remove the oxygen from the iron ore pellets. The electrolysis takes place using fossil-free electricity. The hydrogen that will be used in the process is produced next to the direct reduction plant and can be used directly in the process.

    “The fossil-free value chain of the future also includes hydrogen storage. Storing hydrogen gives an opportunity to stabilize the energy system by producing excess hydrogen when there is plenty of electricity, for example when it is windy, and using the stored hydrogen when the electrical system is under strain. To ensure uninterrupted iron and steel production, the ability to store fossil-free hydrogen under efficient and safe conditions is important, all in accordance with society and the authorities’ requirements.”

    “Refinancing dance rolls on as GFG’s six-week Whyalla extension runs out
    Monday, Aug 23, 2021

    “A six-week standstill agreement with Credit Suisse has expired without Sanjeev Gupta’s GFG Alliance finalising the refinancing of its Australian operations – but the company insists its negotiations to secure the future of the Whyalla Steelworks are progressing well.”

    “Credit Suisse Asset Management (CSAM) is looking to recover billions of supply-chain finance funds globally after GFG’s main financier Greensill was placed into administration in March.

    “Citibank is acting on behalf of CSAM. A directions hearing in the NSW Supreme Court was set for May 6 but was deferred to July 5 after an eleventh-hour announcement by GFG that it had agreed to a new financing deal to cover its Greensill debt.

    “The court action aims to wind up the operations GFG’s LIBERTY Primary Metals Australia (LPMA), including the Whyalla Steelworks and a coking coal mine in NSW.

    “On June 23 GFG announced it had negotiated a six-week standstill agreement with Credit Suisse.

    “The six weeks ended on August 4 without GFG Alliance yet to announce the finalisation of a re-financing deal.

    “A GFG Alliance spokesperson said the company was working closely with Credit Suisse Asset Management and other creditors to secure alternative long-term funding.

    “GFG Alliance’s Restructuring and Transformation Committee continue to make good progress on restructuring,” the spokesperson said.

    “LPMA businesses are performing well and generating positive cash flow, supported by operational improvements and strong mining and steel markets.

    “We are not in a position to comment further.”

  5. Our political overlords acted quickly on Covid because they knew not doing so would have consequences within the electoral cycle. People dying everywhere and overflowing ICUs tend to be political poison, just ask Trump. Climate change on the other hand is a slower burn. Many voters still see climate change as an ‘environmental issue’ unrelated to human health and economic well being. Anything that creates jobs cannot be denied. I doubt EU carbon tariffs would hurt enough to shift the politics. The only way forward is political leadership which we don’t have from either major party. Most of the climate criminals we currently have running the show will have moved on by the time the proverbial really hits the fan.

  6. “The only way to protect ourselves and our children from this group [the unvaccinated] is by keeping them isolated from the rest of us, effectively continuing the same restrictions we have all gone through until now.”

    Not sure how this follows since real world data shows that in relation to delta the vaccinated after a very short period of time are able to spread the disease just as easily as an unvaccinated person.

    Unvaccinated without covid -> no danger to anyone
    Unvaccinated and recovered from covid -> (apparently) no danger anyone (natural immunity)
    Unvaccinated and asymptomatic -> no danger to anyone
    Unvaccinated and with covid -> can spread disease: should isolate

    Vaccinated without covid -> no danger to anyone
    Vaccinated and “recovered” from covid -> can still spread disease (no natural immunity)
    Vaccinated and asymptomatic -> could still have disease and not be aware, so maybe still spread
    Vaccinated and with covid -> can still spread disease: should isolate

  7. Unfortunately social changes need to hit a tipping point before change happens at scale. It will start with more and more businesses realising that they aren’t gaining anything by lining up with the polluters. As things like electric cars start to trickle in, people will gradually start to notice how dirty our cars are, and it will gradually become less social acceptable to pollute. This has happened with smoking. It was unthinkable not that many decades ago that smoking in pubs could ever be restricted. It’s still unthinkable in some countries today. Even some LNP members might eventually grow a spine, or more likely be pressured by their own constituents who also start realising that they aren’t getting anything out ignoring the growing problem.
    I think at the heart of some of the anti-lockdown gish gallops is a fear of the status quo being disrupted – and the biggest threat is that the idea that collective action is impossible and anti-democratic has been comprehensively destroyed.

  8. Good time for a reminder that climate change is not the only disaster inflicted by burning oil fuels. The Guardian reports on a high-quality new study in London (n=13,000) finding a strong connection between air pollution (NOX and fine particles) and use of mental health services: The World Bank’s guesstimate of the annual economic cost of air pollution is $5 trn, not counting mental health. Getting rid of fossil fuels would be an urgent necessity, fully justified on economic grounds alone, even if it had no impact whatever on the climate *.

    Don’t think that Australia is spared from low density and lack of heavy industry. On the low-pollution Costa del Sol, my PurpleAir sensor (get one!) is giving a PM10 reading just now of 10 microgrammes per decilitre, similar to parts of Brisbane. That equates to 18m nanoparticles per cubic metre – a typical sedentary human breathes 8 or so cubic metres a day. Our bodies did not evolve in such conditions.

    * Footnote: to anticipate a quibble, let me specify that the sources of air pollution and carbon emissions overlap but do not coincide. Generator turbines using fossil gas hardly emit any air pollution, but copious volumes of CO2. Several million poor villagers in the Third World are killed each year by indoor air pollution from cooking with sustainable biomass. A full transition has to eliminate both dangers.

  9. “Most of the climate criminals we currently have running the show will have moved on by the time the proverbial really hits the fan.”

    Their children and grandchildren will still be around, but wealth itself has traditionally been the preferred insurance policy for the wealthy and their families. At the more extreme end of risks – major global catastrophes – they turn to well stocked bunkers such as only wealth can provide.

    I suspect Mr Musk and Mr Bezos – who do seem to have awareness of global problems that most other super wealthy prefer NOT addressing – will, despite their space ambitions and hype, have bunkers too.

    I think they are all wrong; a healthy, sustainable economy – even at the cost of paying taxes and supporting emissions accountability as well as a massive build of clean energy against their own short term financial interests – is a far better insurance policy than escape to space or bunkers.

  10. “Most of the climate criminals we currently have running the show will have moved on by the time the proverbial really hits the fan.”

    Their children and grandchildren will still be around, but wealth itself has traditionally been the preferred insurance policy for the wealthy and their families. At the more extreme end of risks – major global catastrophes – they turn to well stocked bunkers such as only wealth can provide.

    I suspect Mr Musk and Mr Bezos – who do seem to have awareness of global problems that most other super wealthy prefer NOT addressing – despite their space ambitions and hype, will have bunkers too.

    I think they are all wrong; a healthy, sustainable economy – even at the cost of paying taxes and supporting emissions accountability as well as a massive build of clean energy against their own short term financial interests – is a far better insurance policy.

  11. Oops. Doubled up there – thought it didn’t go through so I posted it again (with small changes).

    (An aside – I sometimes (but not always) have trouble with the text box here being too small (just a couple of lines) with no way to enlarge it; it gets awkward to check and edit before posting.)

  12. Yes, we know what we need to do in both situations, i.e. the climate problem, and the Covid problem. In both cases though, we come up against the very humans we need to convince to do something they are otherwise unwilling to do. If we magically transported back to the first century AD, we would be confronting the exact same problem of having some humans who were not sold on the idea of following public health advice, even if it was how they could keep their businesses afloat. It’s simply a matter of the distribution of humanity in terms of personality and behavioural features. We can’t eliminate it, short of some kind of (Frankenstein?) cloning program. If we breed as we do, then we are stuck with that distribution of personalities and human behaviour. Nietzsche was on the money, when it came to this.

    The big difference between the two issues though, that’s a gulf; a pandemic is *here and now* in a way that the current level of human-induced climate change is not. There are many localised impacts from the currently caused climate change that are, unfortunately, of distinctly different natures; this means that in trying to apprehend the totalitiy of climate change, most humans are unable to do so, for their lived experience is so different to that of people elsewhere. For instance, heatwaves and firestorms, versus flooding rains, or even drought. Pandemics kind of stick out, and in the here and now, whereas the overall impact of human-induced climate change is experienced differently, depending upon your specific location and your socio-economic standing. By definition, pandemics are epidemics that hit multiple nations, states, or countries. Global pandemics hit all countries and continents that have human hosts upon them.

    For these reasons, I view the two issues as distinctly different, apart from the more austere statistical analysis of a given year, which might well determine some kind of similarity over a single year. Once we look at decades or more, the difference between a SARS-Cov-2 pandemic and that of the relentless Anthropogenic Global Warming surely will show up, and by then the AGW’s effects will be substantially more than now, whereas that of a pandemic is most likely to have faded into the backdrop of other infectious diseases that us humans have to deal with.

    I am not claiming that the current pandemic is going to suddenly improve, or that the virus will mutate into a relatively harmless virus. No, that’s probably not the case. On the other hand, even with the delta variant, in the end the sheer coverage of the vaccinations will make it much more difficult for this virus to behave even worse than it is now. We can’t know how it will evolve—until it does, with respect to the newer environment of a mainly vaccinated human host. Whatever happens, humans will quickly adapt, for the virus and its variants are an existential threat in the here and now. Unfortunately, the bulk of the most severe climate change impacts are not of this immediate nature, and that’s what allows politicians to kick the can down the road, a decade here, a decade there.

    If there is to be any good change, it either occurs through the capitalist system and we get lucky that this change is rapid enough; or, politicians strive to make the case that we must make certain changes, even at risk of making mistakes, in order to arrest the worst of the future calamity. The former is a bet on the problem not becoming unsolvable before capitalism can align with solving it; the latter, that’s a matter of actually choosing to get ahead of the curve, as they say, and to try things out, to push for certain reasonable attempts at solving the problems, rather than the shrug of the shoulder, the studied ignorance in the face of the obvious question: if not politicians, then who will marshal the necessary forces and economic clout to address these problems?

  13. Oh, and when I say, “if not politicians,” what I mean is that these are the very people we vote in, whose salaries we pay, and for whom we invest the powers to make changes, especially ones that are to our benefit as human beings. When those very people, the elected officials, ignore or downplay the risks that the average Joe/Jane is exposed to, they are doing all of us a disfavour. Sadly, there are few mechanisms for dealing with incompetent or deliberately ineffective politicans, unlike the rest of the workforce.

    So, when I say, “if not politicians,” I mean that they are the appropriate class of workers for whom we should expect results that help us all. In my mind, at least, the repeated failure of the political class is in the way that special interest groups can buy their own politician, even an entire party—see America, and the Republican Party. While it is true that all such arrangements of power are dynamic and hence of a temporary nature, in this context “temporary” can extend to one or two human generations. That’s only temporary when compared against centennial events, for instance.

    Not that I am in a hurry to cut Gladyss Berejiklian a break, the likelihood is that she coloured the public health advice with her specific political requirements, and so she responded as she did, with lousy restrictions in the initial instance, despite accumulating evidence from overseas as to just how bad the delta variant is.

    None of us have a crystal ball. That’s a given. On the other side of that comment, is the fact that we all can read history, and a number of us white folk were subjected to Marshall’s “I can jump puddles,” a novel about childhood polio. Very few young people have even heard of polio, let alone seen a picture of a child in an Iron-Lung, a huge cylinder of iron, that did the work of their lungs by alternating the air pressure within this rigid chamber. Iron lung patients had no capacity to use their hands or feet. An itchy nose stayed itchy! Don’t even contemplate the mechanics of bowel motions and faeces disposal, for someone in an Iron-Lung. The accounts were generally sanitised, with respect to bodily function.

  14. Going on Morrison’s and Berejiklian’s efforts, COVID can’t even teach our elites how to fight COVID. There’s no way it’s going to teach them how to fight Climate Change. The LNP and the ALP take their donations and their orders from the corporations and Australia’s billionaires club.

    Perhaps COVID can teach people how to fight climate change but do the people have enough political agency? Well, of course they do if they use it by voting, spending patterns and direct action. Voting seems nearly useless unless the population are prepared to go beyond the political duopoly. Labor are nearly as neoliberal as the LNP.

    The imminent and now unavoidable Australia-wide COVID-19 catastrophe looming under the Sydney-Canberra Business-LNP cabal might polarize politics in Australia in a new way. I am predicting waves of COVID-19 catastrophe in Australia from this point, from current policy. A COVID-19 Sandpit might be the way to go here. I am sure people have a lot to say. I feel COVID-19 is a lot more likely to kill me and/or my loved ones in the next five years than climate change. Then again, if we have a horror summer of fires, and I haven’t died from COVID-19 I might be walking that statement back. When the nation is burning down on two fronts, Climate and COVID-19 it is hard to know which to fear most. I think short to mid-term COVID-19 is to be feared most and long-term Climate Change is to be feared most.

    I see the need for a COVID-19 Sandpit. NSW is only weeks away, if that, from a disastrous crisis. The rest of the country is not far behind.

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