On April 22, Earth Day, Cornerstone hosted a webinar titled “Every Day Must Be Earth Day: Climate, Coronavirus and Complexity. CEO Erika Karp was joined by Karl Burkart, Managing Director of One Earth, a project of Rockefeller Philanthropy, and former Director of Science & Technology at the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. One Earth is dedicated to advancing cutting-edge science to address the climate crisis. The organization funded a breakthrough climate model (published as Achieving the Paris Climate Agreement Goals by Springer Nature) which shows how the world can achieve the ambitious 1.5°C goal through currently available technologies at a lower cost than our current energy system.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Erika and Karl tackled these questions:

  • Is the COVID-19 pandemic related to climate change?
  • Will the pandemic-related drop in carbon emissions lead to lasting changes?
  • Will the oil market collapse slow the pace of transition to alternative energies?
  • What is the impact of the current crisis on social and economic justice?
  • What can people do to move the needle on climate justice?

In preparation for our call, Karl provided a written assessment of the questions we used to shape our discussion. Below are his responses.

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Is the COVID-19 pandemic related to climate change?

There is a large and growing body of scientific literature linking climate change to the spread of vector-borne disease. Studies have focused mostly on insect carriers such as mosquitos (malaria) and ticks (Lyme). There is a general consensus that increased warming will drive increased vector-borne diseases, but no one knows exactly where and by how much.

It’s also possible that vertebrate animals are being exposed to more vector-borne diseases, making them carriers of novel diseases to humans. These ‘zoonotic’ diseases — pathogens that jump between species — include the COVID-19 outbreak, but it’s very hard to make a direct link to climate change. What we do know is that deforestation and encroachment of human activity on wildlands is creating greater risks for both humans and animals, as edge effects increase. We need to retain our current footprint of wildlands (approximately 50% of the terrestrial surface) in order to save biodiversity, preserve priceless carbon sinks, and reduce the risk of future zoonotic diseases.

Climate change will certainly increase risks to public health, and we’re only just starting to learn about the ways this could happen. An emerging body of science is looking at “zombie pathogens” that have been frozen, sometimes for centuries, but are thawing due to climate change. One anecdotal example of this, an outbreak of anthrax in Siberia in 2016, was caused by increased temperatures thawing permafrost and an anthrax-infected reindeer carcass from 1941. Whether this will happen at larger scale is a very controversial topic and the science is new, but it’s clear there are strong linkages.

Will the pandemic-related drop in carbon emissions lead to lasting changes?

It’s hard to talk about the silver lining to such a horrible pandemic, but it is true that emissions will likely drop 5-10% or more as a result of COVID-19. This is essentially exactly what was needed to get us on track to 1.5°C — a net reduction of 56% of global emissions by 2030 (or roughly 6.5% per year).

I myself had a pretty bad carbon footprint due to my travel and speaking engagements, and I’m seeing many of these venues events now going online, including Climate Week, which is normally held in New York concurrent with the UN General Assembly in September. The irony of Climate Week is that you have the whole world gathered in one place talking about solving the climate crisis while emitting enormous amounts of CO2. We’re now being forced to learn how to do many things virtually, with a much-reduced carbon footprint.

This could be a tipping point when virtual working becomes the standard, rather than the exception. A study in 2018 showed that 70% of people were able to work remotely on occasion. What if that were reversed – with physical officing being the exception rather than the rule? The permanent reduction of carbon emissions implicit in such a transformation of our work lives would be a game-changer. But I think many are rightfully skeptical that this will turn into permanent behavior change. And behavior change is only a piece of the climate change puzzle…

There’s only so much we can do as individuals to help. We need permanent policy shifts. We need to stop subsidizing fossil fuels (at a whopping $4.7 trillion per year according to the IMF) and start subsidizing clean, renewable energy. To make that shift happen, we will need a different kind of behavior change… VOTING. People need to start voting for candidates in much larger numbers at all levels of government of they care about clean air, clean water, and a balanced climate. Perhaps if we get nationwide mail-in voting, this could be the beginning of more civic engagement, which will drive the policy changes needed to solve the climate crisis.

Will the oil market collapse slow the pace of transition to alternative energies?

This is an excellent question and a very complicated subject. In my opinion, COVID-19 is “sinking all boats” — fossil fuel energy and renewable energy. I was in Riyadh for G20 meetings in late February, and prior to COVID-19 breaking out there was already a brewing conflict with OPEC+ nations balancing whether or not to cut production to stimulate falling prices. The fact of the matter is, the oil industry was already heading for a rough year. We supported research by Carbon Tracker, a think tank in the UK that has been analyzing  data from many of the Oil & Gas majors, and they predicted a major decline in the sector in the early 2020s, as more and more people switch to electric and hydrogen modes of transport.

Then COVID-19 hit. The oil markets are now in a freefall, with negative trades for the first time in history. This will put a lot of oil and gas companies out of business, including the oil services industry (companies that manage, build, and maintain the production pipeline). Massive layoffs are happening right now, and when the economy comes back to life, hopefully in a year or two, it will be a huge and difficult ramp-up for the fossil fuel industry. There will be many, many losers and only a few winners. And some of the losers need to lose, like the tar sands in Alberta, which produce 25% more supply chain emissions per barrel of oil than the global average. Then there is increased demand for electric vehicles. Just last month, Tesla had record sales in China.

I’m almost brave enough to predict that COVID-19 will be the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era as we’ve come to know it. We will have to rebuild our economy, and I think clean economy will win out, with solar and wind power now heading to 4 cents per kilowatt hour (c/kWh) on average and one solar hybrid project last summer bidding below 2c/kWh. Renewables also make the most sense as a stimulus for economic recovery, creating jobs at a ratio of 3 to 1 per dollar invested versus fossil fuels. This is not to say the renewable energy industry isn’t also being pummeled. This was set to be the biggest year in history for solar deployment, and now there are massive layoffs. We’ll just have to see how bad it will be on both sides and hope for a realignment of subsidies to promote a clean future.

What is the impact of the current crisis on social and economic justice?

First let’s consider health. Before COVID-19 hit, there were an estimated 4.2 million deaths per year due to ambient air pollution, according to the World Health Organization. Low-income communities constitute by far the majority of those deaths. And this isn’t the case just in the developing world. A recent study in California shows that black and brown people are exposed to 40% more emissions than white people. This is often due to the location of low-income communities in proximity to fossil fuel plants — land that wealthier (and historically whiter) people didn’t want to build on.

So we need to acknowledge that low-income communities were already struggling with lung disease and other diseases at a higher rate. Now, according to a new study, those same communities are experiencing many more COVID-related deaths than the national average. In Michigan and Illinois, for example, black people make up 41% of Covid-19 deaths, despite being less than 15% of the population. And in Louisiana, nearly 60% of the people who died of coronavirus in the state are black, while the demographic is just a third of the state’s population. Top all that off with the lack of socialized healthcare in the US, and you have a recipe for disaster.

There’s blame to share in many directions, but first let’s point a finger at the fossil fuel industry, and the lack of regulations to protect communities from pollution. Second, let’s look at our healthcare system in the US. Many European countries last month called citizens home who were on visas in the US because they deemed our country as lacking sufficient medical infrastructure. Post-COVID, these two problems have to be addressed to even begin a conversation about social justice. In the global context, I shudder to think about the impacts of so many people losing their jobs and livelihoods. But one thing that does appear to be emerging is a growing movement to tackle climate injustice head-on. I think COVID-19 is going to add fuel to that fire as these great inequalities in our economic system are revealed.

What can people do to move the needle on climate justice?

It shouldn’t take a global pandemic for us to see clear blue skies and breathe in clean fresh air. We deserve better. If anything good can be said of COVID-19, it is this momentary glimpse of what the sky should look like and some space to think about the future we want to create.

So what is the future we want to live in post-COVID? I think that’s the question we all need to be asking. Are we going to let the fossil fuel industry come roaring back to life? Or are we going to finally start to build the clean energy future we all need? We could have an opportunity to start righting the wrongs, provide low-income communities with access to clean energy while providing job training and income opportunities for a clean energy future. This is what a Green New Deal should focus on – pivoting subsidies away from the ailing fossil fuel sector and towards investments in renewable energy, along with a major jobs program to transition coal, oil and gas workers to good, long-term jobs in solar, wind, and energy efficiency.

Internationally, we know developing countries are going to be hard hit by the pandemic and one initiative, Sunfunder, is working to bring energy access to rural areas of Africa where it’s needed most. There is a risk of default for many community solar projects across Africa due to the pandemic, which would be a horrible loss to the people there, derailing more than a decade of progress to bring clean, affordable energy in the region. So these are the types of efforts that need to be supported now more than ever.

One thing we do at One Earth is to identify key initiatives that are strategically important in creating a green future and achieving the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Climate Agreement. If you’re interested, please feel free to visit our website OneEarth.org and sign up for a monthly briefing of projects around the globe that are working towards a green, and sustainable future.

Editor’s Note: From an investment perspective, there are numerous ways to deploy capital in support of climate justice. Cornerstone Capital Group works with to clients to identify their financial goals and impact interests, and recommends appropriate investment solutions. Our recommendations reflect rigorous research into investment opportunities to understand their risk and return profile, their environmental, social and governance characteristics, and the degree to which an investment facilitates access to the products, services and systems needed to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. If you would like to explore how Cornerstone may be able to serve you, click here.