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Coronavirus and the climate

Coronavirus and the climate

As governments around the world grapple with COVID-19, the planet continues to warm. How is the pandemic likely to impact climate policy within and among the world's largest countries?

For now, pollution is way down. Around the world, smog has decreased dramatically as coronavirus-lockdowns idle factories and park millions of cars, scooters, boats, and airplanes. This is temporary, of course, but it's a chance for people, at least those allowed outside, to see what clean air and water look like.

...but so is attention to climate policy. At the moment, most governments will have to get back to you about climate policy, and the UN has already postponed its planned November global climate summit, mothballing global coordination on climate responses until mid-2021.


Looking ahead, as governments craft responses to the economic fallout from coronavirus, we'll hear vigorous debates about whether and how much climate considerations should be part of those plans. Here are two main arguments.

One: this is a unique opportunity to act on climate, so don't screw it up. The pandemic boosted governments' powers to reshape economies and societies. They could use the moment to make both much greener.

Two: economic recovery trumps environmental concerns. Forcing companies to spend more to go greener in exchange for government rescue money will make it much harder to get workers back to work. Worry about the half a billion people facing poverty first.

So far, we've seen a little bit of both among the world's major economies. The EU, for example, still plans to move ahead with its Green Deal and pledges to tighten its emissions targets, despite pushback from some eastern member states fearful of the cost. In the US, meanwhile, the Trump administration has relaxed emissions enforcement, and Congress failed to agree on any green conditionalities as part of the $2.2 trillion March rescue plan, though another package is now in the works. China, for its part, has massively ramped up coal-fired power generation to reinvigorate an economy that just shrank for the first time in 40 years.

And that's part of the problem. Absent coordinated action among the world's largest economies to deal with climate change, it will be hard to flatten the curve of global warming, so to speak. Greenhouse gases, like viruses, don't respect borders.

The November wildcard: US President Donald Trump and his election opponent Joe Biden differ sharply on climate change. In his first year as president, Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Accords, arguing that the deal left "American workers — who I love — and taxpayers to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production." Biden, by contrast, has pledged to recommit the US to the Paris Agreement on day one of his presidency.

Even as countries around the globe continue to grapple with responses to the economic fallout of the pandemic, what happens on November 3 in the US will have a dramatic impact on global climate cooperation.

Khant Thaw Htoo is a young engineer who works in Eni's Sakura Tower office in the heart of Yangon. As an HSE engineer, he monitors the safety and environmental impact of onshore and offshore operations. He also looks out for his parents' well-being, in keeping with Myanmar's traditions.

Learn more about Khant in the final episode of the Faces of Eni series, which focuses on Eni's employees around the world.

On his first day as president, Joe Biden signed a remarkable series of executive orders. Boom! The US rejoins the Paris Climate Accord. Bang! The United States rejoins the World Health Organization. Pow! No more ban on immigration from many Muslim-majority countries. Biden's press secretary reminded reporters later in the day that all these orders merely begin complex processes that take time, but the impact is still dramatic.

If you lead a country allied with the US, or you're simply hoping for some specific commitment or clear and credible statement of purpose from the US government, you might feel a little dizzy today. The sight of an American president (Barack Obama) signing his name, of the next president (Donald Trump) erasing that name from the same legislation/bill, and then the following president (Biden) signing it back into law again will raise deep concerns over the long-term reliability of the world's still-most-powerful nation.

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Kevin Sneader, Global Managing Partner at McKinsey & Company, provides perspective on what corporate business leaders are thinking during the global coronavirus crisis:

Should businesses be pessimistic or optimistic about 2021?

It's easy to be gloomy about the year ahead when faced with the realities of a cold, bleak winter in much of the world. Add to that lockdowns across Europe, surging case numbers and hospitalizations, and dreadful events in the Capitol in the US to name a few reasons for pessimism. But I think there is a case for optimism when it comes to this year. After all, it's true to say that it's always darkest before the dawn, and my conversations with business leaders suggest there are reasons to be positive by 2021.

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Renowned tech journalist Kara Swisher has no qualms about saying that many of the country's social media companies need to be held accountable for their negative role in our current national discourse. Swisher calls for "a less friendly relationship with tech" by the Biden administration, an "internet bill of rights" around privacy, and an investigation into antitrust issues.

Swisher, who hosts the New York Times podcast Sway, joins Ian Bremmer for the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on public television nationwide beginning this Friday, January 22th. Check local listings.

Brexit pettiness lingers: Here we were naively thinking the Brexit shenanigans were over after the EU and UK agreed to an eleventh-hour post-Brexit trade deal last month. We were wrong — the saga continues. Now, a new row has erupted after the Johnson government said it will not give the EU ambassador in London the same diplomatic status awarded to other representatives of nation states. Unsurprisingly, this announcement peeved Brussels, whose delegates enjoy full diplomatic status in at least 142 other countries. The UK says it will give the EU envoy the same privileges as those given to international organizations, which are subject to change and do not include immunity from detention and taxation given to diplomats under the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations. EU members are furious, with officials accusing London of simply trying to flex its muscles and engaging in "petty" behavior. The two sides will discuss the matter further when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets EU representatives next week, their first face-to-face since the two sides settled the Brexit quagmire on December 31. Alas, the Brexit nightmare continues.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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