What the response to the current health crisis can tell us about our fight against climate change

It wasn’t long after coronavirus curfews were placed in various corners of the world that the first reports of the positive effects of the crisis on the environment started to appear: clear water in the canals of Venice, clean air in Chinese cities and diminishing GHG emissions across Europe. Could the health crisis be the first step out of the climate crisis? “No”, says Dr Jochen Gassner, CEO for First Climate Markets AG. However, responses to COVID-19 can show a lot about how much determined action can achieve if applied to climate action.

Dr. Jochen Gassner
CEO, First Climate Markets AG

He has been working with the company for the last eleven years and is responsible for First Climate’s voluntary carbon market and renewable energy business. Since 2008, Jochen Gassner has been a member of the Executive Committee at ICROA – the International Carbon Reduction and Offset Alliance.

Jochen has 15 years of carbon market experience and more than 20 years experience in environmental and carbon management. Before joining First Climate, he held the position of a sustainability manager at an international plastics manufacturer and has worked as an environmental consultant with industry clients.

Carbon emissions in Germany have dropped due to the corona crisis. Suddenly the 2020 climate goals, that were previously believed to have almost certainly been missed, are once again within reach. Could the virus actually help us make a breakthrough in climate protection?

Gassner: Focusing solely on climate protection, the decreasing carbon emissions are naturally to be welcomed. However, under the given circumstances, it is not a cause for celebration. Small gains have been made at a very high price for the world; economies are in a slump and unfortunately many people have and are still suffering personally. In the long-term, Corona won’t help us to mitigate climate change.

How have you come to this conclusion?

Gassner: When it comes to the coronavirus and climate change, we are dealing with two very different crises which require very different responses. The primary strategy to fight the corona crisis is intended to be effective in the short-term and aims to minimise the potential catastrophe. When it comes to climate protection, we need to focus on the long-term and make changes to our behaviour and how we take responsibility for our environment.

We already witnessed a significant drop in greenhouse gas levels across the world during and after the 2008 Financial Crisis. But those were only short-term impacts, and emissions returned quickly to their original states as the economy recovered. One or two years down the line emissions were back to their pre-crisis levels, if not even higher. Shutting down international economies is not a solution for the climate problem. Instead, we need quick and effective decarbonization strategies to effectuate a zero-emission development. That way will be able to combine economy and sustainability.

Isn’t that an unrealistic requirement?

Gassner: Absolutely not. The requirement is widely acknowledged is included in government policies. Think of the EU Commission’s Green Deal, for example. In Germany, it is currently being debated how emergency relief and economic aid should be designed to incorporate and promote climate protection measures. I personally see this as a great opportunity.
In fact, calls for better climate protection come more often than not from the economy itself. The most recent Petersberg Climate Dialogue started with 68 large German companies from all industries supporting Foundation 2° in their call for a climate-friendly economic stimulus plan. Many of the companies we work with even go a step further. By their own volition, these companies have set very ambitious climate goals and have worked with us to develop strategies so as to achieve them.

 

What role does carbon offsetting play in all this?

Gassner: Carbon offsetting can contribute to keeping the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere on a constant level. It is one of the many instruments that can be used to implement sophisticated climate protection strategies at a corporate level and can thus contribute to achieving the climate goals of the Paris Agreement.

Implementing energy efficiency measures, utilizing renewable energy sources wherever possible and maintaining open and transparent communication are also instruments that can be used for the same purpose. Carbon offsetting can be a very effective tool though, especially for those industries where it is difficult to otherwise make substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, such as in the transport and logistics sector.

In the medium and long-term, real breakthroughs will only come from new, low-carbon technologies or energy sources, such as the generation and use of climate-neutral fuels in the sectors mentioned.

As long as such technologies are not readily available, companies can temporarily make quick and efficient contributions to climate protection through carbon offsetting. Nevertheless, we still need to increasingly use processes to actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

So, are there no lessons that we can learn from the pandemic with regard to climate protection?

Gassner: Corona has made it clear how vulnerable our economy is and how important it is to take appropriate action early on to strengthen the resilience of our economic systems with effective risk management. The benefit in the case of climate protection is that, despite everything, we have a little more time to implement the right measures. As a result, these measures don’t need to be as drastic as they have been in the case of the coronavirus. A ‘climate shutdown’ is therefore avoidable. We just need to make sure that we don’t waste time – we need to act now.

At the end of the day, in our globally interconnected world, both the corona and the climate crises can only be solved with international cooperation. That being said, the current pandemic has shown us that countries can act swiftly and courageously and have, in most cases, successfully limited the spread of the disease. Perhaps we should look at it this way: Why shouldn’t individual companies be able to go ahead with climate protection? The pandemic has shown us that we are in the position to respond to global crises. That should spur us on and act as an incentive.

Of course, we need to think big and realise that climate protection won’t come for free. We are talking about a task that will last generations. Nevertheless, we can’t delay making the investments necessary for climate protection. Those who think short-term growth is more important than climate protection will only suffer more in the future.

You are referring here to the possible contribution of the private sector to solving the climate crisis?

Gassner: Climate protection is a task for our entire society. From our experience, we know that state-induced measures alone won’t suffice to stop climate change. Voluntary commitment by corporates, in particular, can make a big difference to climate protection. Public discussion shows us that it is exactly this voluntary commitment that is increasingly expected. In the medium-term, no company or branch will be able to afford to step back from climate protection or lack behind on it.

What can companies do now to prepare themselves for climate change and mitigate the associated risks?

Gassner: Until a few weeks ago, climate protection – also driven by public discussion – ranked high on the agenda for many businesses.
Many of us are affected personally and financially by the pandemic right now, but still we must not let it cloud our vision. We must make sure we don’t lose much-needed time in the fight against climate change. What we need now is two-dimensional crisis management, which will allow us to deal with the pandemic without neglecting climate protection. Whilst the corona and climate crises need to be solved simultaneously, they need to be viewed independently from one another.

More specifically, this means that companies, if they haven’t already done so, should at first set themselves an ambitious climate target. This is best done in accordance with the recommendations of the Science Based Targets Initiative. In the second step, companies should then develop short-, mid- and long-term climate strategies that cover all emissions associated with the company and its business activities. Concepts to manage carbon emissions in the upstream and downstream value chains should also be developed, along with concepts for the demand-based procurement of renewable energies.

When it comes to managing carbon emissions, many of our clients want to develop their own climate protection projects in addition to purchasing emission reductions from existing projects. This, however, needs a certain run-up. Relevant measures should therefore already be planned in advance now. Until a company is able to implement their own project, carbon offsets from existing projects sourced from the market can bridge the gap. With a concrete plan of action, companies are well-prepared to meet the challenges of the climate crisis and can make a successful contribution solving it.