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Climate mitigation beyond the pandemic has opportunities, threats

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Alan Horowitz

By Alan Horowitz, Michael Vandenbergh & Margaret Badding

The First State, The Small Wonder … how about the “Lowest-Lying State in the Union”? While we may be focused on the COVID-19 pandemic at hand, our vulnerability to the climate change-driven rising seas and extreme weather is not dissipating. In fact, the pandemic is presenting our public and private sectors with an unprecedented opportunity to forestall an even greater catastrophe: the climate crisis.

With the sudden and sweeping changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have plummeted, projecting reductions between 4% and 7% globally and 6.7% and 11% in the United States this year. Around the globe, air quality has improved and skies in many cities are clearer than ever. Despite these clear short-term environmental effects, will the pandemic lead to lasting decarbonization? There are reasons for both pessimism and optimism.

One cause for concern is that public support for climate change mitigation efforts could decline, with economic and pandemic response taking precedence. Delawareans – particularly communities of color who are also among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change – continuing to struggle and Main Street businesses are fighting to survive. Following the 2008 financial crisis, public concern over climate change decreased as the overall economic downturn progressed. Between 2008 and 2010, public awareness of climate change fell by 13 percentage points, with similar declines in the understanding of its human causes. The economic downturn following the COVID-19 pandemic could similarly undermine support. Fortunately, there are signs that we are looking beyond the crisis to this longer-term challenge: a recent report indicates that public concern for climate change has remained relatively constant, with 66% of Americans saying they are at least “somewhat worried.”

Another reason for pessimism is that the polarized public response to COVID-19 parallels the partisan divide in public opinion about climate change and mitigation. Whether Americans believe that the death count from the virus is under or over-reported depends largely on party affiliation and trust in government, as is the likelihood an individual will wear a mask publicly or engage in social distancing. If the pandemic seems to have intensified the red-blue divide, exacerbating existing polarization that may impede the ability to build support for deep decarbonization.

Yet there is also reason for optimism. The pandemic has driven many households and businesses to adopt low-carbon behaviors, including increased remote work and decreased air travel. A lasting shift in this area, which many companies and employees are seriously considering, could yield serious emissions benefits. According to one analysis, if workers with remote-work-compatible jobs did so just half of the time, GHG emissions would decrease by 54 million tons – the equivalent of taking almost 10 million cars off the road.

Beyond behavioral shifts, fiscal policy also offers an opportunity for a green recovery from COVID-19. An economic recovery plan that is conditional upon, or creates incentives for, decarbonization could stimulate fundamental changes in the way we generate and use energy. Investing in renewable energy, building retrofits, and new infrastructure that relies on clean technology would promote the creation of new jobs and industries and accelerate the transition to a decarbonized and sustainable future. Delaware businesses and residents who embrace these opportunities can help pave the road from crisis to a more resilient and sustainable future.

Some promising signals are already emerging from investors, lenders, insurers, and a wide range of companies. Even prior to the pandemic, many corporations committed to voluntary agreements and standards. A growing number of businesses organized themselves as “Benefit Corporations,” embracing their responsibility to protecting the planet and their broader communities. Meanwhile, consumer demand for more environmentally responsible goods and services also continued to grow.

To date, these commitments have not been diminished by the pandemic. To the contrary, many business leaders are embracing the prospect of a green recovery. Some of the largest have signed a “recover better” statement that supports a green recovery that tackles both the COVID-19 emergency and the climate crisis. Smaller businesses are also recognizing that by embracing their environmental and social responsibilities they can save money, attract customers, retain workers and not only survive the pandemic but thrive over the long-term.

COVID-19 presents an immediate and visible threat to our well-being across Delaware and the entire country. Yet, the lessons we have learned about the need to work together as a society in the face of a common threat can motivate and empower us to decarbonize and mitigate the risks of an even greater threat to our future presented by climate change. In fact, avoiding that future crisis may very well depend on how we respond to the current one. 

Alan Horowitz is the co-founder and chief experience officer of Green Street USA, a Kennett Square, Pa.-based start-up whose low-cost, subscription-based consulting program helps small and medium-sized businesses save money, build resilience, attract talent, grow market share and become more sustainable through a commitment to environmental and social responsibility. A version of this column was originally published by the Environmental Law Institute.

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