Sorry to disappoint climate deniers, but coronavirus makes the low-carbon transition more urgent


John Hewson, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

Climate deniers have been hanging out for the United Nations’ next big summit to fail. In a sense, the coronavirus and its induced policy responses have more than satisfied their wildest dreams, precipitating a global recession that they no doubt hope has pushed the issue of the low-carbon transition well down the political and policy agenda.

The next round of international climate negotiations – the so-called COP26 in Scotland – has been delayed until 2021. Presumably, climate sceptics hope governments and policy authorities will now be consumed by, in the words of our prime minister, the need to “cushion” the impact of the recession and ensure “a bounce back on the other side”.

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Deniers argue that further disruption to economies and societies will be avoided at all costs.

Sorry to be the harbinger of denier disappointment, but there is every reason to expect that the virus crisis will strengthen and accelerate the imperative to transition to a low-carbon world by mid-century.

Climate deniers will use coronavirus to argue against climate action.

Time is of the essence

As Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, states in her recent book:

“We are in the critical decade. It is no exaggeration to say that what we do regarding emissions reductions between now and 2030 will determine the quality of human life on this planet for hundreds of years to come, if not more.”

This will require about a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030 – way more than is contemplated in the Paris agreement – to achieve even net zero emissions by 2050.

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There are a few “pluses” from the experience of coronavirus. Emissions are falling (although clearly no one would advocate a global recession as a climate strategy). And the response of governments to the crisis has seen decisive domestic action – working individually, but together, in meeting what is a global challenge.

Individual governments have demonstrated how quickly they can move once they accept the reality of a crisis. We’ve also seen just how far they’re prepared to go in terms of policy responses – lockdowns, social distancing, testing, rapid and historically significant fiscal expansions, and massive liquidity injections.

It’s noteworthy that issues that in “normal times” could not have been ignored – such as civil liberties and concerns about intrusive governments and effective competition – have so easily been set aside as part of emergency responses.

The pandemic has slowed global emissions growth.

The global picture

The lowered emissions provide an opportunity to “reset” the base for the climate transition. Any effective bounce back from recession should involve strategic thinking and planning as to what industrial and trading structures, and social norms, will be appropriate.

The climate transition offers opportunities to develop and exploit new technologies, and generate new businesses, new industries, new jobs and sustainable growth.

Some nations may use the cover of coronavirus to sneak out of even their low-ambition Paris commitments. Japan, for example, last week reaffirmed its 2015 Paris goal, despite the UN urging much tougher action.

But I suspect the major nations will continue to lead the way in transition. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has led a global call to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Presumably, Johnson saw the UK’s hosting of COP26 as a chance to substantiate his position as a leader on climate. Europe and China will also undoubtedly seize the opportunity to lead.

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It’s significant that their governments remain committed to what was a pre-COP bilateral meeting later this year. I suspect they will work towards pulling each other up on their coat tails.

The US situation is harder to judge. If President Donald Trump survives to a second term, expect more chaotic, negative rhetoric and action on climate, even from the depths of what is shaping as the biggest US economic slump since the Great Depression.

But if Trump loses – an increasingly likely proposition as his irresponsible and destructive manoeuvring around coronavirus hurts him politically – the US would probably seek to assume more of a leadership role on climate.

Not only did Trump pull out of the Paris agreement, but he embarked on a campaign to weaken environmental obligations on industry, weaken the Environmental Protection Authority, and reverse vehicle emissions reduction standards. However, Trump’s campaigns were offset somewhat as key cities, states and industries pushed ahead on the transition anyway.

President Donald Trump has withdrawn the US from the Paris accord.

On the home front

Unfortunately, there are similarly low expectations of the Coalition government’s future positions on climate. This is clearly a test of Morrison’s leadership.

He made a mess of his bushfire response, on top of a mediocre handling of the drought, so has sought to reestablish credibility with his response to COVID-19.

The jury is still out on this, especially given his inconsistency of message, and attempts to reduce scrutiny by limiting Parliament, delaying the federal budget and resisting the release of medical and economic modelling.

However, Morrison will come to recognise that it will take more than his “bounce back” slogan to recover from what could be a very long period of depressed economic activity.

Pre-virus, Australia had a weak and weakening economy, with many serious structural challenges. The government now faces a very significant financing and debt management task, with limited capacity to restrain spending, and a political reluctance to raise taxes.

My hope is that Morrison will recognise the imperative, and the development opportunities, of an effective transition to a low-carbon Australia over the next three decades.The Conversation

John Hewson, Professor and Chair, Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


We just spent two weeks surveying the Great Barrier Reef. What we saw was an utter tragedy

Author supplied

Terry Hughes, James Cook University and Morgan Pratchett, James Cook University

The Australian summer just gone will be remembered as the moment when human-caused climate change struck hard. First came drought, then deadly bushfires, and now a bout of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef – the third in just five years. Tragically, the 2020 bleaching is severe and the most widespread we have ever recorded.

Coral bleaching at regional scales is caused by spikes in sea temperatures during unusually hot summers. The first recorded mass bleaching event along Great Barrier Reef occurred in 1998, then the hottest year on record.

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Since then we’ve seen four more mass bleaching events – and more temperature records broken – in 2002, 2016, 2017, and again in 2020.

This year, February had the highest monthly sea surface temperatures ever recorded on the Great Barrier Reef since the Bureau of Meteorology’s records began in 1900.

Not a pretty picture

We surveyed 1,036 reefs from the air during the last two weeks in March, to measure the extent and severity of coral bleaching throughout the Great Barrier Reef region. Two observers, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, scored each reef visually, repeating the same procedures developed during early bleaching events.

The accuracy of the aerial scores is verified by underwater surveys on reefs that are lightly and heavily bleached. While underwater, we also measure how bleaching changes between shallow and deeper reefs.

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Of the reefs we surveyed from the air, 39.8% had little or no bleaching (the green reefs in the map). However, 25.1% of reefs were severely affected (red reefs) – that is, on each reef more than 60% of corals were bleached. A further 35% had more modest levels of bleaching.

Bleaching isn’t necessarily fatal for coral, and it affects some species more than others. A pale or lightly bleached coral typically regains its colour within a few weeks or months and survives.

The 2020 coral bleaching event was the second-worst in more than two decades.
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

But when bleaching is severe, many corals die. In 2016, half of the shallow water corals died on the northern region of the Great Barrier Reef between March and November. Later this year, we’ll go underwater to assess the losses of corals during this most recent event.

Compared to the four previous bleaching events, there are fewer unbleached or lightly bleached reefs in 2020 than in 1998, 2002 and 2017, but more than in 2016. Similarly, the proportion of severely bleached reefs in 2020 is exceeded only by 2016. By both of these metrics, 2020 is the second-worst mass bleaching event of the five experienced by the Great Barrier Reef since 1998.

The unbleached and lightly bleached (green) reefs in 2020 are predominantly offshore, mostly close to the edge of the continental shelf in the northern and southern Great Barrier Reef. However, offshore reefs in the central region were severely bleached again. Coastal reefs are also badly bleached at almost all locations, stretching from the Torres Strait in the north to the southern boundary of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.


For the first time, severe bleaching has struck all three regions of the Great Barrier Reef – the northern, central and now large parts of the southern sectors. The north was the worst affected region in 2016, followed by the centre in 2017.

In 2020, the cumulative footprint of bleaching has expanded further, to include the south. The distinctive footprint of each bleaching event closely matches the location of hotter and cooler conditions in different years.

Poor prognosis

Of the five mass bleaching events we’ve seen so far, only 1998 and 2016 occurred during an El Niño – a weather pattern that spurs warmer air temperatures in Australia.

But as summers grow hotter under climate change, we no longer need an El Niño to trigger mass bleaching at the scale of the Great Barrier Reef. We’ve already seen the first example of back-to-back bleaching, in the consecutive summers of 2016 and 2017. The gap between recurrent bleaching events is shrinking, hindering a full recovery.

For the first time, severe bleaching has struck all three regions of the Great Barrier Reef.
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

After five bleaching events, the number of reefs that have escaped severe bleaching continues to dwindle. Those reefs are located offshore, in the far north and in remote parts of the south.

The Great Barrier Reef will continue to lose corals from heat stress, until global emissions of greenhouse gasses are reduced to net zero, and sea temperatures stabilise. Without urgent action to achieve this outcome, it’s clear our coral reefs will not survive business-as-usual emissions.

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The Conversation

Terry Hughes, Distinguished Professor, James Cook University and Morgan Pratchett, Professor, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.