Source: Markus Spiske (Unsplash)

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen some of the biggest developments and changes in the world, drastically affecting the way in which we understand life. The pandemic has dealt its cards, regardless of who the players are or how high the stakes have been raised. Governments have reacted with unprecedented vigour owing to the scale of this pandemic, pumping out trillions of dollars to assist businesses, prop up state-owned enterprises staring ruin in the face and has made grand donations to assist healthcare facilities. None of these actions seem to be misguided in the greater sense as they all serve to keep the world functioning quasi-normally in this period of uncertainty. The question is then, if governments, one of the largest economic stakeholders in the world are able to adapt so quickly to a disease threatening everyday life, why are they not able to equally address the bigger threat to human life, the continued destruction of our planet?

Discussions about protecting the planet, preventing climate change and promoting sustainable development have been on the table since the 1960’s and has seen the gradual development of protocols and programs to implement a ‘greener’ outlook in all facets of life. This presents the first of the critiques-from the outset, targets have always been implemented in an ‘attempt-and-see-how-far-we-have-come’ manner and not under the ‘utmost-of-importance’ conditions. The progress that has been made can be argued to exist mainly on paper and in discussion forums.

It took 40 years for 191 nations to finally decide that this should be tackled with a united front when the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were signed in 2000 and when these weren’t achieved, they were replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2016. States have adopted numerous policies and standardisation procedures to ensure engagement on the subject, ranging from the Paris Agreement to Carbon Tax Bills and Cap-and-Trade schemes. The problems with most of these, being that policies and pledges undertaken aren’t strong enough and thus haven’t enforced the action needed. It has worsened with uncooperative parties such as the United States (US) and Russia, two of the largest producers of carbon emissions. 

With weak global governance on this front and the costly effects that these policies have on states, it’s no wonder that governments have tended to place environmental protection at the bottom of the to-do list. With average government expenditure only reaching 106 billion Euro’s for 2018, the second smallest with economic affairs having 5 times that for the continent that has made the biggest developments in achieving the SDGs. This presents the second critique, even fiscally the environment and its heavy suitcase full of overlapping issues, which affect each of the SDGs has to take a backseat.

Developing countries also have a responsibility in this regard, but have shown equally bleak responses to this climate crisis. South Africa having signed many policies and agreements, including implementing Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA’s), has made minimal progress. As an economic leader in the continent, it provides the worst example by continuing to build coal-fired power plants.  

This continued underwhelming attempt by states worldwide has prompted scientists to release a report addressing the citizens of the world to push for greater efficacy and action from governments. According to this report nearly 75% of countries’ pledges made to the year 2030 earmarked for increased sustainable development were unsatisfactory. This highlights the third critique which focuses itself on the always-lacking products of countries’ efforts to tackle climate change, which has also been affected by the types of language used in climate policies. Like ‘guidelines’ giving the effect of vagueness and ambiguity which suggests objectives and not concrete goals. This has led to 11,000 scientists urging drastic action to turn global emissions down to zero by the year 2050. 

Since governments have historically had a bad track record continuously implementing policies with minimal output, placing monetary focus on businesses and economic growth and showing subpar interests in achieving set standards for climate action. There is a necessity for civil society to play a greater role. This does not mean that the responsibility should be shouldered by one group more than another, just that the intensity from both sides needs to be mutual.

The theoretical field of International Political Economy (IPE) has also contributed to this field and one particular theory, Everyday IPE, has shed light on the crucial effect individual actions have on all facets of society. It makes the assertion that our daily actions (what we do, how we spend our money and which actions we support) leave indelible consequences which affect political, social and economic areas of life. What this means then, that not only increased civic participation is needed in issues of environmental protection but that increased awareness of individual responsibility is needed in order to affect change. Awareness needs to spread to infiltrate all levels of society from the global to the national, to the local and ultimately into the individual sphere. It needs to be implemented in homes and markets and taught in schools. It needs to embed itself deeper into the fields of architecture, arts, engineering and governance. It needs to be the headline of news and in advertisements on a permanent basis, not periodically when natural disaster strikes.

What governments need to realise is that talking climate action and signing policies with weak implementation is not enough anymore and has not been enough for the past two decades. Strong arguments have been made that our current carbon economy is not only the root of many political, social and economic failures but it also has increased the likelihood of further pandemics and outbreaks. Further developing the current economy would therefore mean a conscious acceptance of increased inequality, poverty, disorder and environmental degradation. As such, it makes absolutely no sense to believe that the economic governance of the international system will be able to keep the planet alive on its current trajectory. During the chaos wrought by this pandemic, we have the opportunity to reorganise the way society functions and to realign our priorities as a global community. If stimulating the economy to produce better development and better living standards for each individual is what heads of state want, then logic would tell them that transitioning to a green future, not a ‘greener’ one, is the only acceptable way to go.

Rogene van Tonder is a third-year student working towards a degree in a Bachelor of Political Sciences: International Relations. She is also a tutor in the French Department at the University of Pretoria and has a keen interest on merging these two fields in a career of diplomacy or foreign relations development in the domain of languages.  

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