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Editorial: Coronavirus crisis a chance to stop, think, and build a sustainable world

  • August 28, 2020
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

Due to the spread of the coronavirus, efforts to tackle the world’s environmental problems have inevitably stagnated. But the planet faces an environmental crisis posing a threat to humanity into the future.


The extent of the damage caused by human activity has been measured through “Earth Overshoot Day.” This index marks the day when humanity’s demands on nature exceeds what Earth’s ecosystems can renew in a year.


Up until the 1960s, the resources that humanity consumed in a year were balanced with Earth’s capacity to recover what had been lost. But as populations have increased and people’s standards of living have improved, Earth Overshoot Day has been arriving earlier. This year it fell on Aug. 22. In other words, for the remaining four months of 2020, people will be placing a burden on Earth as they live their lives.


Global warming is the heaviest toll the world has paid for excessive human activity. The amount of greenhouse gas from fossil fuels has exceeded what nature can absorb, and accumulation of these gases has resulted in rising temperatures.


The most recent scientific findings indicate that the world may be able to avoid catastrophic damage by holding the average global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius in the post-Industrial Revolution era. But under the measures currently in place, the world’s average temperature will exceed that 1.5-degree mark in 2030.


The Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change requires signatories to strive to hold temperatures below that 1.5-degree mark, making no distinction between developing and developed countries. The agreement was due to come into full force this year, but the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and a loss of momentum is feared.


Nevertheless, due to the suspension of factory operations and a major decline in traffic volume in China and other emerging countries, atmospheric pollution has temporarily eased. Air travel has decreased on a global scale, and emissions of greenhouse gases have been suppressed.


Many people have likely gotten a feel for the preciousness of nature in recent months. As the world has been forced to take a break due to the coronavirus crisis, we hope that it can use the present situation as a turning point to start rebuilding economies while paying attention to the environment.


The International Energy Agency has proposed a restoration plan that would invest $1 trillion (about 110 trillion yen) per year over the next three years into energy policy shifts incorporating decarbonizing and related measures.


By actively investing in the spread of renewable energy and the streamlining of electric power grids and other initiatives, the agency estimated that 9 million jobs could be created every year. If this were achieved, the world’s economy would grow by an average of 1.1 percentage points, the agency calculated.


In Europe, there have been moves to consider “green reconstruction,” which aims to restore economies through investment in the environmental sector.


In 1972, a report titled “The Limits to Growth” commissioned by the Club of Rome, a group formed by economists and experts in various fields across the world, stated that if populations continued to increase and environmental pollution continued unabated, then the world would reach its growth limit within 100 years. But the world then, charging ahead with economic growth, did not seriously heed this warning.


In the meanwhile, global warming progressed, resulting in climate change. There have been heat waves and droughts, while water damage has taken people’s lives and driven them out of their homes, making them refugees. Situations raising questions over the sustainability of the world and humanity are surfacing all over the globe.


United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has labeled the current situation a “climate crisis.” Action is needed before it is too late.


Of course, this applies to Japan as well. The Global Climate Risk Index released last year by a German think tank showed that in 2018, the country most heavily affected by climate change was Japan.


The Japanese government has promoted a “sound material-cycle society” policy whose initiatives include dealing with old coal-fired electricity generation plants. But Japan continues to face strong criticism from international society over its passivity in its approach to global warming countermeasures. Rather than treating the symptoms, it should deal with the cause with an overhaul of the nation’s energy policy.


Such efforts would fall in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set in 2015 by the United Nations. These are 17 goals to enable humanity to overcome crises for a better, more sustainable future, covering areas from poverty to inequality, environmental destruction and climate change. The U.N. is calling on all member nations to achieve the goals by 2030.


In the financial world, there are moves to refrain from investing in companies that do not take the SDGs seriously. Even at a personal level, people can back firms actively engaged in such efforts by choosing their goods and services.


Brazil’s former Environment Minister Marina Silva, who has worked to preserve the Amazon rainforest, has warned that prioritizing economic recovery and placing environmental issues on the back burner poses a great risk for humanity.


We have made many sacrifices due to the COVID-19 crisis. Yet at the same time, we have also been given a chance to rethink our lives up to this point. We hope this will be an opportunity for countries to go beyond their own interests to build a new world. The wisdom of humanity is being tested.

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