On December 31, 2019, a novel virus was named that was causing respiratory problems in people it had infected. You’ve probably heard of it. Or, I should say, you’ve probably heard about nothing but it for most of 2020.
But this isn’t about the virus. This is about the other massive threat to humanity that had been — and continues to be — steadily creeping into our everyday lives.
You see, although developing a vaccine or treatment takes a lot of time, there are still direct measures that can be taken to curb a viral pandemic.
We all experienced them firsthand.
With climate change, it’s a lot more difficult. There is no equivalent to a vaccine or an antiviral, a single treatment that can be administered to effectively end the looming threat. You think the world shut down after the stay at home orders? Imagine the standstill if coal and oil were completely cut off tomorrow. Most of the world would be without electricity. Hospitals would be unable to function. Transportation would cease.
Yes, imagine how unbearable quarantine would be if there were no Netflix, Amazon Prime, or even a light for a book.
However, a building movement to increase renewable energy — and a smaller, though (I think) equally important push to find other carbon-free energy — is upon us. And it just might have been helped along by the pandemic that has turned our lives upside down.
It seems that, for the first time in any living person’s lifetime, there is a chance that we can make a fundamental change in how we use energy — a change that could knock us off our collision course with a CO2-fueled disaster.
Here is a four-part plan to ensure that we get there.
Don’t kill oil — let it die with dignity
Fossil fuels are responsible for carbon emissions, but also for almost every good thing that has been developed in the past quarter-millennium. They’re not inherently evil — these fuel sources served a great purpose and now we must move on.
Not only are they are too harmful to the atmosphere, they are becoming less economical. Fossil fuels were experiencing a slow but steady decline in many parts of the world before the virus halted global activity. This was despite already receiving billions in government subsidies from nearly every oil producing country on earth.
It would make zero sense to spend vast amounts of money — all of which will be needed to recover from the pandemic — to revive a dying oil industry, only to kill it again with a planned shift towards carbon-free energy.
It also makes zero sense to recreate jobs that will be taken away during this shift.
In North America, there is an added reason to move on from our reliance on oil: Saudi Arabia and Russia have put themselves in a position where they can drive small- and medium-sized North American producers out of business whenever it suits them. We saw this right before the pandemic began.
As Forbes contributor Wal van Lierop puts it, “there is no scenario where fossil fuels make a full and sustained recovery from this crisis.”
They’ve served us well, but all good things must come to an end.
Avoid the pitfalls of the past
Given the worldwide challenges that the global shutdown has presented, governments must prioritize food, shelter, and safety for citizens that face an uncertain economic future.
However, in the long term, plans will have to focus on recovery from the pandemic, which will require a lot of capital. If trillions of dollars are going to be spent to restore the economy to some semblance of its past, we must avoid trying to revive the past.
Spending must be done in a forward-thinking manner.
It needs to be centered on companies that are creating the future, not ones that want to recreate the way things were.
Put our money where our thoughts are
Everybody talks about renewable energy. There has been quite a bit of investment into solar and wind over the past decade with some encouraging results.
But we need to do more. As great as wind and solar are, they cannot meet all our present energy needs, never mind an increased demand.
There are several unconventional or underexplored possibilities for carbon-free energy. Now is the time to see if they could be part of a prosperous future.
We need to explore the viability of SMR thorium reactors and see if they could work, once and for all.
We could also ramp up our investment into fusion energy — yes, it’s elusive and nearly impossible to sustain, but if we were to figure it out, we would solve a lot of global problems with the energy it could provide.
And that’s not all. There are countless areas to expand research and development for sustainable technologies: improving global energy storage and electric vehicle infrastructure, developing carbon capture and utilization (such as creating fuels from carbon taken out of the air), building more efficient power lines that can bring clean energy from areas of abundance to areas of scarcity (as could be done with hydro sharing), and repurposing fossil fuels for advanced new materials and food solutions.
Fundamental changes are possible with enough investment and effort in the right areas.
Embrace the future — it could be bright
For the first time since the industrial revolution, this might actually be possible: We might be able to decrease our carbon output by a significant amount. But in order to get there, we need to embrace what lies ahead.
We cannot afford to rebuild an economy that survives the pandemic only to crumble in a more devastating way because of climate change.
Instead, we need to create an economy with a focus on the future. One with forward-thinking jobs that contribute to making the planet more habitable in the long-term.
Life won’t go back to “normal” — which is both problematic and liberating.
The economic implications will be felt for years and may very well change the way governments are structured and how companies operate. It will take a long time until many people experience the quality of life and standard of living they were enjoying up until about the middle of March, 2020.
But in this difficulty a new way of doing things has the possibility to emerge.
It might not have been possible without a pandemic to shake the foundation of our global society to its core.
So, while it will take a long time to recover from the devastation of the most devastating and far-reaching viral outbreak in the information age — and while we may never go back to the way things were — it will be better for our species in the long run.
It may very well be the only thing that could have shook us from the grips of our carbon-intensive lives in time to avoid the worst of what a changing climate would bring forth.
The new normal doesn’t have to be a return to normal.
It can be better, for the people and other living beings that call this planet home.