In a world rife with disputes and divisions, there will be one emotion likely to unite most people at the stroke of midnight on 31 December: sheer relief that 2020 is finally over.
There’s no risk of overstating it: this past year has pushed our world right to the edge. A single virus leaping from animals to humans was enough to kill 1.6 million people, bring major economies to their knees, and cause untold anguish and suffering all over the world.
And while the pandemic was raging, so was the climate emergency, like two horror films overlapping. We saw record-breaking wildfires engulf the west coast of the US, a record number of powerful Atlantic storms, the Arctic ice failing to freeze in late October and deadly floods hitting countries from Italy to Indonesia. We got a glimpse of a chaotic world battered by multiple crises, each making the other worse, and it was terrifying.
Exceptional as the calamities of 2020 may seem, they could be just a taste of what’s to come unless we change direction. Neither the pandemic nor extreme weather are random events. Disease outbreaks are on the rise and about 70% are the result of viruses crossing the barrier from animals to humans.
From rampant deforestation in the Amazon to Covid-infected mink farms in Denmark, industrial farming is opening up a viral Pandora’s box that could unleash pandemics even worse than the present one. While scientists were busy developing a vaccine, destructive industries were even busier clearing forests and displacing wildlife, increasing the risk of awakening the next deadly virus. We’re mopping up the floor while making the leak worse.
When it comes to the climate, there’s no vaccine, no single fix for it. Technology can help, but the real breakthrough can only come from a radical change in political and corporate will. Despite the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic, levels of planet-heating gases in the atmosphere have hit a new record high this year. It’s clear that nothing short of a complete transformation of our economy and society can save us from climate breakdown.
This is why sliding back to the old normal is not an option. Unless we stop oil firms drilling for more oil, food giants destroying rainforests, and destructive fishing depleting our seas, the worst isn’t over – it’s just begun. Ending the pandemic is only half the job – we must also start something new and better. We must create new green jobs, invest in communities and tackle the hardship faced by many at the same time. And 2021 is the year to do it.
For all the devastation it has caused, the pandemic has taught us some important lessons. It’s forced us to slow down and rethink what really matters in life, what the important jobs are, the value of family, friends and access to nature. And the most basic lesson of all: if we get complacent about the threats we face, there’s hell to pay.
There are reasons to be hopeful. In this past year, what previously would have been considered impossible turned out to be possible. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, found the money to increase protection for people’s jobs and health. Ministers prioritised working together to tackle the virus, and world leaders have collaborated to develop vaccines. If our politicians can do all that to respond to a health crisis, why not do it to tackle the climate crisis, too?
Across the Atlantic, US voters have defied the odds by defeating a sitting president who also happens to be the world’s most powerful climate crisis denier. With Donald Trump out of the White House and a stronger focus on climate action from leading economies such as China, South Korea and Japan, we now have a fighting chance to bring the world back together in a moonshot effort to cut planet-warming emissions.
Climate summits rarely turn out to be the make-or-break, all-or-nothing moment people imagine them to be. But next year’s UN climate conference in Glasgow could be the catalyst for the breakthrough we so badly need. For that to happen, real leadership from Boris Johnson and his government in the UK will be key, yet so far the signals have been mixed. We have seen a big leap forward with the phase-out of new diesel and petrol cars by 2030, but a lurch backward with the proposed aid budget cuts. The UK’s newly set emissions-slashing target for the next decade is among the most ambitious in the world, but the prime minister’s much-vaunted 10-point plan would leave us nearly 10 percentage points short of it, provided it gets implemented in full.
What ministers must do now is ramp up the action needed to cut emissions from homes, roads, farms and power sources in the UK. Britain should lead by example and show that by stopping the climate crisis, we can also restart our economy and create the jobs and industries of the future that can benefit everyone. This isn’t a burden, it’s an opportunity.
If we want the future to look as different as possible from the crises-ravaged mess of the past year, then tackling the climate and nature emergency head-on really is the only way forward. If we can muster the energy for a new year resolution as we toast good riddance to 2020, let it be a determination to leave behind the old normal and make a truly new beginning.
John Sauven is the executive director of Greenpeace UK