COVID-19 Threatens Our Prospects for a Clean Energy Future

Let’s start with the good news. Mother Nature is catching some fresh air. She is breathing again — at least in the short run.

COVID-19’s near-shutdown of the global industrial economy has dramatically reduced mobile and industrial sources of carbon emissions. The effects are so powerful that they can be seen from space — as in these satellite images of China.

Much of the world has come to a literal stop. Only essential workers and businesses are operating in many places. In several areas, there are no schools open, no office work, no crowds and no traffic. 

It is the stuff that, if sustained, could drastically reduce our carbon emissions, giving us a fighting chance to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. Unfortunately, while never returning to work or school again or just shopping online might be appealing to some, this is not probable as a sustained lifestyle.

The bad news is that COVID-19 is a health crisis of epic proportions, wreaking untold havoc on our families, communities and the economy. The meaning of “intersectionality” was never clearer than now, when many communities face multiple, intersecting threats.

For example, people in low-income communities living in energy ghettos with toxic hazards are more vulnerable to COVID-19 because they suffer higher rates of respiratory conditions like asthma. Those communities are also more vulnerable to economic fallout from the pandemic, as the lowest-paid workers are losing jobs or going without pay, and small businesses are shuttering.

What’s worse is that we are likely to lose ground in the fight against civilization’s biggest existential threat: climate change. Reduced emissions from the pandemic are likely to be short-lived, but impacts on the global fight against climate change could be long lasting — unless we speak out now.

The 2018 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change report gave us 12 years to fix our carbon problem or suffer the long-term consequences. Those include life-altering ecological impacts; more frequent and extreme weather events; compromised food and water systems; diseases; and loss of life-supporting animal species.

It was a call to action. The climate clock is ticking. We are down to 10 years.

Before the pandemic hit, there were many signs of hope. Despite federal abdication of the Paris climate agreement, city and state governments and the private sector were making substantial commitments to become a net-zero decarbonized economy.  

Climate and resilience plans proliferated. Over 100 cities committed to using 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 or 2050. All sectors of the economy were targeted.

The challenge is great, and so are the opportunities. It entails decarbonizing our built environment, including manufacturing, transport, construction and operations; converting combustion engines in cars and buses to electric; replacing highways with mass transit systems; eliminating fossil fuels in our power sector; decarbonizing the food sector; and bringing renewable power within reach of every community. Most encouraging are the growing efforts to prioritize clean energy investments in climate-vulnerable communities and to ensure that minorities, women, veterans, small businesses and workers are not left out of the clean economy.

The pandemic and the tanking economy jeopardize this progress and dim the prospects for strengthening America’s resilience. Cities and states no longer have the luxury or bandwidth to advance climate plans while tackling the pandemic.

Consumer demand for building efficiencies and green building technologies evaporates in a weak economy. Investments for solar tax credits are useless in a bear market. The projected loss amounts to 120,000 jobs and $43 billion in investments.

The $2 trillion emergency stimulus package passed by Congress last week provides much-needed relief for American workers and businesses ravaged by the pandemic. It is silent, however, on the impact of COVID-19 on urgent climate work.

This stopgap measure fails to deliver a stimulus and strategy to rebuild America. This calls for a comprehensive resilience program for America rooted in fortifying our public infrastructure against future disasters.

The vulnerabilities fully exposed by COVID-19 offer a crystal ball into the consequences of a global climate pandemic. Climate impacts are also intersectional in scope.

Climate disruptions are already impacting our food, water, public health systems and economy.  A climate stimulus needs to be transformative in scope.

COVID-19 is teaching us that an effective climate stimulus would first and foremost build resilience in the most vulnerable communities, addressing persistent health, income, wealth and racial disparities and inequities. It would build a resilient health system and universal health access.

It would invest in a more robust and diverse workforce and business sector that can rebuild our infrastructure to be greener and healthier. And it would ensure that this new economy guarantees a living income for all families, so that they can be resilient under all circumstances.

But in a deeper way, we need to reflect on what COVID-19 tells us about resilience and  ways to reclaim our humanity, strengthen our social capital and give greater homage to Mother Nature.  If we learn one thing from COVID-19, it is that Mother Nature really has the upper hand.


Denise Fairchild is president and CEO of Emerald Cities Collaborative, a national nonprofit organization of business, labor and community groups dedicated to climate-resilience strategies that produce environmental, economic and equity outcomes.

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