Earth Day 2020: Climate action post-COVID-19

From government action to an ‘Anatomy of Action’ for our everyday lives, members of the REN21 community tell us how we can minimise climate change together.

What can we do to minimise climate change?

The theme of this year’s Earth Day, ‘climate action’, could not be more appropriate. Climate change affects every part of the world: Greenhouse gas emissions are higher than ever before, the earth’s surface temperature is increasing, sea levels are rising, weather patterns are changing and weather events becoming more extreme… and people and societies are becoming more vulnerable to the effects of global pandemics.

Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a movement credited with launching modern environmental action. Amid COVID-19 and the tragedy and uncertainty that comes with it, we use this day to remind ourselves of the importance of climate action.

As REN21 Executive Director Rana Adib wrote in her recent editorial, “For both climate and sustainable development reasons, we need to question the way we are doing things; how we produce, consume and finance, how we move goods and provide services, how we trade and share resources.”

“COVID-19 raises the same fundamental questions but with an urgency that, unfortunately, those of us in climate and development have been unable to communicate successfully.”

Tackling climate change will involve collaboration at all levels: from governments, to business and industry, right down to the individual. We spoke to REN21 members, Alix Bolle (Energy Cities), Garrette Clarke (UNEP), Tabare Curras (WWF), Jennifer Layke (WRI), and Stephan Singer (CAN International) about what climate action they hope to see post-COVID-19.


Climate action must start with economic restructuring

The economic stimulus efforts being used to repair our economies affected by the pandemics will shape our future. Jennifer Layke lays out the options “Governments have a choice: Retrench into how our economies were functioning before or use this opportunity to make change.”

Tabare Curras of WWF agrees: to minimise climate change we need to radically re-orientate our economy towards a more climate-friendly model, which includes large-scale renewable energy integration.  According to him, this can be done: “We can turn unpredictable and massively negative events into predictable and locally positive circumstances, through green stimulus packages or debt relief for greener economies.”

Alix Bolle explains how governments can reframe their economic models around climate concerns, and how cities are leading the way. “Governments at all levels should assess the color (from light green to dark brown) of all money they spend. Local authorities have already started the exercise, including the City of Oslo where the Mayor famously said that he counts CO2 in the same way he counts money.”

COVID-19 has taught us that no sector can work alone

No one sector can build the type of resilient system needed to withstand future crises. Action to tackle climate change and accelerate the transition to renewables must involve cooperation between sectors. “We need to widen participation in the ‘great renewable energy transformation’” explains Curras. “We can do this by involving more actors to design technical and policy solutions to overcome implementation barriers, and in turn harvest the benefits of switching to renewable energy.”

Most strikingly, COVID-19 has surely demonstrated the lack of resilience in our healthcare systems, but also the potential of collaborative action to improve it. Our health systems, and indeed our societies in general, will be better able to cope with future crises if energy systems are localised. Recent disasters have brought this fact to the fore: “What we’ve learned from wildfires in Australia and California, and what we are seeing now globally during the COVID-19 pandemic, is that access to non-grid reliant electricity is an important outcome” explains Layke.

Renewable generation can be undertaken at a smaller scale than traditional methods, allowing it to be locally controlled. In the case of grid failure, local generation can continue, making renewable energy-based energy systems more resilient to climate shocks. “We need [to be] energy independent to meet local needs in moments of crisis. We should be able to ‘island’ ourselves” Layke states.  Collaboratively building localised, more resilient energy systems will lead to better healthcare, as well as reducing emissions.

renewable energy healthcare
Renewables can be used to improve the resilience of our healthcare systems. Solar panels provide renewable energy to a healthcare and maternity centre in Lagos State, Nigeria.

Policy change is needed at all levels

However, Layke points out that neither financial packages nor coalitions of private actors will be enough to address climate change; the restructuring we envision will require long-term policy change, too. According to her, we need “to pivot and allow for resilience, promote equity, and address vulnerabilities. For this, we need to set policy goals, and not just provide economic stimulus.”

At the national level, strong legislation is needed to underpin any restructuring efforts. Stephan Singer from CAN International, a network of over 1100 members globally, maintains that national governments need to re-evaluate the commitments made under the Paris Agreement. They must increase the uptake of renewable energy and energy efficiency measures: “All heavily-polluting governments – G20 countries in particular – need to upgrade their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), prior to COP26.” He explains “Currently, the total of all actions outlined in NDCs are insufficient to keep global temperature rise this century below to 1.5°C as agreed in Paris.”

However, changes cannot just be top-down. “Recent social movements including the yellow vests movement in France or the Youth for climate strikes around the world have shown that citizens want to be part of the solutions” states Alix Bolle, “There is a need to collectively redefine what resilience means and develop local initiatives that enable us to better absorb external shocks.” Policymakers must support a shift to more localised, citizen-led initiatives, as is already the case in Europe, Bolle explains. “There is no shortage of examples of European cities that have been doing just that over the past few decades. In this sense, the opportunity to mainstream citizen energy communities, thanks to a recent EU legislative push, is very promising.”

What climate actions can I take?

So, what actions can individuals take in our own lives to prevent climate change? Garrette Clarke of UNEP points to the ‘Anatomy of Action’ – a collaborative project between the UN Environment Programme and the UN School of Disruptive Design. The team conducted an extensive review of scientific data to uncover which individual actions, when accumulated across the globe, can and will have positive impacts on the health and sustainability of our planet.

The ‘Anatomy of Action’, divides simple things we can do into 5 areas of action – 1) the food we eat; 2) the stuff we buy; 3) how we use our money; 4) the way we move around, and 5) the fun things we do. Under these categories, simple action swaps are suggested, along with a ‘how to’ guide and explanation of ‘why this helps’. For example, we can save energy and save money by adapting our homes and habits to be more energy efficient. You can read the full Anatomy of Action here.

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we are facing a new crisis, but also new opportunity. It is time for all of us to act on climate change. From governments, to industry, to individuals, we all have a role to play to build the sustainable future we need.