Good things come to those who persist: Why 2020 didn’t derail climate action

It's been a tumultuous and tiring year that impacted the lives of everyone. But amidst the tragedy caused by the coronavirus pandemic, heroes emerged to prove we can adapt when facing a crisis - and the climate crisis is still very much shaping decisions moving forward.

Good things come to those who persist: Why 2020 didn’t derail climate action

It’s been a year like no other and yet, perhaps, a sign of things to come. 2020 delivered disruption to the global economy and society in a way that some scientists had warned, but very few had actually predicted.

For the fortunate amongst us, the coronavirus pandemic delivered a seismic shift to everyday life through lockdowns. Those less fortunate were left mourning loved ones. The pandemic has been the heartbeat of every discussion in 2020 – from political and international to the brief period we were allowed to chat with friends in pubs, restaurants and cafes. It has impacted every sector and every individual in different ways.

It is no surprise that 2020’s word of the year was “lockdown”. We’ve all had to adapt to new ways of working, whether that be home-based or at facilities with heightened measures on health and social distancing. Any article or discussion around lockdown and the pandemic likely included the phrases “unprecedented” and “disruptive”.

Those two phrases perfectly describe the 2019 word of the year – according to Collins dictionary – “Climate Strike”. It was hard to imagine in the summer of 2019 when thousands of businesses, school children and activists gathered in cities around the world to demand action on climate change, that 12 months later those streets would be largely empty.

Yet here we are. The climate strikes were unprecedented. It was the first time that the future generations built a collective voice letting the incumbents – both generations and businesses – know that their actions had not done enough to stop a planet-wrecking climate crisis from spiralling out of control.

The strikes were also disruptive. It pushed climate change into the mainstream in a way that pictures of polar bears and melting ice caps and stark warnings from scientists couldn’t.

The collective voice of the strikes created a platform for climate scientists and sustainability professionals to finally share their warnings and expertise with a world now willing to listen. The dominoes have fallen rapidly since, from the IPCC’s special report to the UK and other nations setting net-zero targets and the birth of numerous business collectives aligning to limit global temperature increase to no more than 1.5C.

Refreshingly, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 did not derail climate action. Sure it disrupted it, climate strikes were forced to become virtual, capturing a smaller audience, and the focus on businesses and politicians turned to health, safety and the economy, but the coronavirus pandemic has actually reinvigorated the climate debate.

From the ashes of the current economic collapse, a phoenix has risen in the form of a “green recovery”. Nations and businesses alike have promised to “build back better” by angling towards low-carbon and green markets that simultaneously deliver economic growth while pushing the world towards net-zero emissions by 2050.

At a societal level, people are more acutely aware that unforeseen disruption can emerge and inflict traumatic levels of pain and adjustment in a way that isn’t confined by national borders. The pandemic has led to deaths, forced people out of jobs, put a massive strain on globalisation and the flow of trade. The climate crisis will do all these things as well, and if you can take a silver lining from a global pandemic it is that people, businesses and governments alike are now much more aware of the importance of resilience against threats that are looming on the horizon and in the here and now.

Many are discussing how they can do that, but there is a danger that it becomes a conversation for another day. “We’ll deal with the climate problem, once we’ve dealt with Covid-19”. What people need to be aware of is that climate and ecological degradation is likely to fuel even more health pandemics moving forward.

Between 1980 and 2013 there were 12,012 recorded virus outbreaks globally. Factors spurring this trend are various and have been linked to a rise in trade and global connectivity and increased travel. As those factors rise, biodiversity falls, which is the crux of the issue.

Deforestation is linked to 31% of outbreaks such as Ebola, and the Zika and Nipah viruses. It assists in driving animals into human populations and away from their natural habitat, which in turn accelerates the spread of “zoonotic” diseases. Viruses like Zika, malaria and dengue fever have all been accelerated by climate change, according to the World Health Organisation.

Action against disease can be championed by action against the climate crisis.

2020, by the UK Government’s own admission, was meant to be a “year of climate action” that would culminate in with the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. That conference is now 11 months away, due to postponement as a result of the pandemic. But, it has enabled the likes of China and the US to take a renewed focus on the net-zero transition, while also allowing the hosts, the UK, to start to get its own house in order. In fact, Biden’s win – depending on your political leaning – seemed to kickstart a wave of separate positive announcements that included vaccines and green policy in the later months of 2020. Good things come to those who persist, it seems.

The National Infrastructure Strategy, Ten Point Plan, Energy White Paper, interim Net-Zero review and a new Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) have all been published one after the other in recent weeks, as if Jim Davidson were standing outside of Whitehall next to a conveyor belt waiting for a cuddly toy. These key legislative frameworks were all due earlier in the year, but were pushed back, at first due to Brexit and then because of the pandemic.

But at the end of 2020, our metaphorical bingo card on green policy is largely ticked off. Sure a lot of detail from those strategies still need to be spelt out, and the Net-Zero Strategy set for publication in 2021 will likely showcase whether the Government can lead us to net-zero or not, but the sheer determination in how the government has pushed these policies – oven-ready or not – out at the end of the year is commendable.

So too is the appetite that businesses have shown to capture the green shoots of a green recovery. Businesses have signed up to joint statements, strategies and playbooks that are all aligned to a 1.5C future. And while many had to furlough staff in the sustainability and energy functions, the resounding message from sustainability and energy professionals that I’ve spoken to is that CSR has not been placed on the backburner – it is being reshaped to better reflect a company’s core purpose.

So, despite how the coronavirus has engulfed every news story, political decision and discussion in 2020, it has not pushed climate action off of the agenda. It has disrupted and already extremely disruptive transition to a low-carbon economy. It has proved that society can adapt when facing challenges, and it has proved that the large majority of the population are willing to listen to science.

It is impossible to predict what 2021 has in store for us all, but the promising rollout of a vaccine gives us a glimpse of the normality we do desperately crave right now. That normality led us into the climate crisis and 2021 has to be the year that a “new normal” is forged that combines economic stimulation with ambitious and rapid climate action.

So enjoy a festive break if you can, and make sure to enter 2021 with a renewed and re-energised focus to deliver long-lasting change.

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