Radical and fast: averting climate chaos

Interview with Brazilian environmentalist Alexandre Araújo Costa | by Raphael Tsavkko Garcia

Radical and fast: averting climate chaos

Alexandre Araújo Costa is a physicist, PhD in Atmospheric Sciences from Colorado State University, professor at the State University of Ceará (UECE) and an internationally renowned Brazilian environmentalist.

His name is remembered in any debate about climate change and ecological challenges for the future and his work is not only limited to academia, but he’s also active in politics in addition to acting as a scientific disseminator on social media.

Costa talked to the Sustainability Action Network about the environmental challenges that lie ahead, particularly in the face of the crisis brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Can you remind us of the situation we were in, environmentally, before covid-19?

The situation before the pandemic was obviously a very serious one from an ecological point of view and we can certainly say that some damage to the earth-system can be considered irreversible.

The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) established that the safest limit to avoid irreversible changes and extremely severe impacts on the earth's climate system would be 1.5° above pre-industrial temperatures.

We are already systematically hitting the 1°, 1.2° mark every year, and the picture was already very serious because to respect this 1.5° limit it was clear that we would have to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030—an immense task. And so, this pre-pandemic scenario, from an environmental point of view, from a climate point of view, could only be characterised as one of total emergency.

The slowdown of economic activities and the social isolation measures adopted during the pandemic have reduced the planet's pollution levels. What other effects can be noticed?

In fact, several indicators of environmental pollution showed improvements [during the pandemic]. What is regrettable is that the occurrence of a pandemic that endangers and takes the lives of hundreds of thousands of people has been the only mechanism that has eventually led to the improvement of these indexes.

For sure you can observe the improvement in air quality in several large cities, potential improvements in water quality in some points or localities that typically received a large number of tailings and so on. However, the re-activation of industries, the return of traffic jams in large cities, etc. will quickly restore those precarious conditions of air quality that we had before.

From the point of view of emissions of long-lived materials such as greenhouse gases, in particular CO2, the pandemic has not really brought about any appreciable effects, because although we will most probably [end] 2020 with CO2 emissions around 7% below 2019 levels, we must remember that CO2 emissions are cumulative. The concentration of CO2 [in the atmosphere] won’t decrease. A 7% reduction in emissions is exactly what we need to do year after year—preferably without an economic crisis, an economic collapse, or a collapse of society.

And it is a process that can only be done through a radical decarbonisation of the planet's energy systems. So the great contradiction is that the long-awaited return of the economy will lead to a return to what it was as far as short-term pollutants go, aggravating the climate emergency.

What environmental lessons can we learn from the crisis?

The first lesson is that we now have a real factory of epidemics caused by our way of life. This is because of the process of environmental degradation itself, of deforestation, the advance of the agricultural frontier, the advance of mineral exploration over natural biomes.

Also, not specifically in the case of the new coronavirus, but other epidemics that risked turning into a very severe crisis, such as the swine flu, bird flu, etc. These are essentially linked to species of animals that we keep confined en masse [and eat].

In other words, obviously this pile of confined, often genetically related animals, is a huge [potential source] of new pandemics. More than that, to feed this enormous number of confined animals, the agricultural frontier [never stops] expanding. This unsustainable consumption of meat is a characteristic of our current way of life.

Another relevant aspect is our hypermobility. Nowadays, any two cities on the planet are connected in a maximum of 48 hours and considering that every day almost 5 million people flew daily, you had 5 million chances of a lethal and contagious virus [spreading across] the planet.

This hypermobility, also driven by fossil fuels that provide a completely wasteful and unnecessary international tourism, is another aspect of our way of life—one that is simply unsustainable and favours new crises.

Finally, I think another lesson that needs to be learned and that is also true for the climate crisis, is that we need to understand that time makes all the difference, that acting early can save lives, and that we need to flatten the curve. On the one hand the contagion needs to be contained so as [to not] follow the exponential rapid and deadly growth rate that leads to the collapse of the health system, and on the other, we cannot let the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere grow with impunity.

So, what are the next steps to be taken?

It is absolutely clear that a society organised on the basis of incessant profit, of infinite growth, of endless accumulation of wealth, cannot respond to the ecological crisis, one that combines the risk of pandemics and climate chaos.

The economy needs to be quickly decarbonised, but we may have [missed the opportunity] of doing it without significant [sacrifices]. One of them is that, besides transforming our energy mix, we need to talk very clearly about reducing energy demand, reducing the production apparatus.

You cannot sustain the programmed obsolescence, the perceived obsolescence and the incessant pace of extraction, production, consumption and disposal. We need to put a brake on the energy demand. [We need] the full substitution of fossil [fuels] for renewables [ones].

And that also means changing very radically the way we travel, greatly reducing travel and adopting a 100% electrified mass public transportation combined with active locomotion.

We need to talk about the changes needed in our food production system, both to save us from the risk of new global pandemics and to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We need an agriculture that is reparative. Therefore, we start talking about agroecology, agroforestry, reforestation, recovery of biomes, so that our agriculture, together with this regenerative process, not only ceases to be an emission source, but becomes a carbon sink and [part of] the solution.

So, all these changes are fundamental and could (and should) be part of the economic recovery plans of all countries, the parameters adopted when talking about economic recovery in the post-Pandemic [world].

More than that, we need to talk about mechanisms such as the universal [basic] income. Entire contingents of workers from certain economic sectors need to disappear—the pesticide industry, the arms industry, the fossil fuel industry—[will need this support] until they migrate to another economic sector.

This mechanism, as the basis of social protection, ensuring dignity for every person and every working family, in a process of transition, needs to be radical and fast.

Interview conducted by Raphael Tsavkko Garcia (@Tsavkko_intl)

Photo by gryffyn m on Unsplash

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.