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The Warnings Were There

Hiroko Kuniya, Anchor, Board Member of Renewable Energy Institute

12 June 2020

in Japanese

Since the state of emergency was declared here in Tokyo, I haven’t once ridden in a train or a car. The only outings I have made have been to shops I can reach by foot, or for walks or jogging. All my work-related meetings are conducted online. There have been reports that blue skies have returned to urban centers around the world following lockdowns, and a study by a research team led by a professor from the University of East Anglia in the UK estimated that global CO2 emissions per day at the start of April declined by 17 percent versus the previous year due to the decline in economic activity caused by the novel coronavirus. Although this is merely an estimate as there is no system for monitoring CO2 emissions in real time, the painful measures put in place to combat the spread of the coronavirus, including citizens staying home and many businesses closing, have resulted in a significant decline in CO2 emissions. The research team also stated that emissions could decline 7 percent year-on-year in 2020 if global shutdowns continue through to the end of the year.

In order to restrict the rise in global temperature to 1.5℃ by the end of the century, the IPCC has declared that CO2 emissions need to fall by about 45 percent by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, spoke in an interview last year of the need to reduce CO2 emissions by 7 to 8 percent per year from 2020 in order to realize zero net emissions by 2050 and maintain a global environment in which humans can continue to live safety. Hearing the forecast that a continued slump in global economic activity through to the end of the year would result in a 7 percent decline in CO2 emissions drove home to me just how difficult this target required to protect the earth is, and I unwittingly let out a sigh.

The novel coronavirus has threatened not only the collapse of our medical systems but also brought about an economic crisis. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, declared the crisis a global pandemic on March 11. This virus that causes the disease officially named COVID-19 was extremely virulent, and exposed the fragilities in our society one after one. Firstly, it uncovered that we were ill-equipped to combat a pandemic, from a severe lack of medical supplies to a weak testing system. The pandemic also first and foremost threatened the livelihoods of those insufficiently covered by social safety nets in our disparate society, such as those on non-permanent contracts, part-time workers, and freelance workers. With a large number of people unsupported from the fallout, governments are scrambling to put in place countermeasures.

Although the pandemic hit unexpectedly, the risk of a large-scale global pandemic had been raised and warnings issued several years prior. In its 2015 Global Risks report, the World Economic Forum listed the “rapid and massive spread of infectious diseases” as the number two global risk with the most significant impact. Around this time, Ebola was spreading in Western Africa, and the MERS coronavirus had re-flared in the Middle East, while in Japan cases of dengue fever had occurred, centered around Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park. The World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Risks report also stated that “nature remains capable of ‘innovating’ a pandemic that would cause untold damage,” and warned that basic preparations by countries around the world were insufficient.

We are now realizing the massive price we have paid for neglecting to bolster our resilience against unknown risks. As globalization accelerated, why were we unable to invest and take countermeasures against a risk that had been predicted and warned of. Was it that our society’s pursuit of short-term results, efficiency, and rationality resulted in preparations against a systematic shock being sacrificed, serving to worsen the crisis?

Since the COVID-19 crisis has emerged, the voices of scientists have come to the fore. With a virus of which much is still unknown driving unease and panic, what should we trust? The things we can rely on are data, and analyses and information backed up by research. While I believe we should use this pandemic as a model for responding to future crises, what we need to remind ourselves of is that this crisis occurred despite experts predicting and warning of the risk of a global pandemic. What this crisis has made clear is that we need to work swiftly to prepare against risks that will inevitably occur, and the largest risk right now is climate change. Japan is already experiencing its effects in the form of abnormal weather, such as temperatures in excess of 40℃, torrential rain, and large-scale typhoons. Just as with the recent pandemic, climate change will have a worldwide impact, and poses a particular threat to the most vulnerable members of society. Furthermore, climate change is thought likely to increase the threat of the spread of infectious diseases.

In order to maintain a safe global environment that can preserve life on earth, a 7 to 8 percent per year reduction in CO2 emissions is required from 2020. The COVID-19 crisis forced governments to declare state of emergency and shut down cities, which resulted in a dramatic decline in CO2 emissions. However, this experience also showed that achieving this level of CO2 reduction without a shift in our social and economic systems would be accompanied by serious pain, and that the impact to our economy and society would be dire.  As we move out of the coronavirus, we will seek ways to restart our economy and build back our society. However, in doing so we must use the lessons learned from this crisis and opt to make bold transformations in order to bolster our resilience against predicted risks. Achieving the decarbonization required to prevent climate change will require a number of systematic changes, including our energy sources, food production systems, and cities. I hope that this pandemic will become a catalyst for rapid systematic change.

Changing our current systems, which have been built based on our past successes, will be extremely difficult. However, I believe we should not miss this opportunity to make the shift to a new, sustainable society that leaves no one behind. Fortunately, we have the Paris Agreement and the SDGs, which serve both as a common global vision of the society we wish to create and also as a checklist against the risks we face. I believe that learning from this recent experience and restarting our systems in an improved manner will help us face and defeat an even greater risk.
 

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External Links

  • JCI 気候変動イニシアティブ
  • 自然エネルギーで豊かな日本を創ろう!アクション
  • irelp
  • 全球能源互联网发展合作组织

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