After the Pandemic

Hope and Breakthroughs for 2021

Keeping faith with human progress hasn’t been easy in 2020. A global pandemic swept across a world that was mostly unprepared for it. Economic life ground to a halt in the spring and has only slowly come back. Political polarization and racial conflict dominated headlines while populism and authoritarianism appeared to be on the march again.

If it wasn’t clear before, this year should remind us that progress is not uniform, linear, or inevitable — it is hard-won. Crisis creates opportunity; Division and polarization invite renewal; Collapse begets reorganization and rebuilding.

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As the United States and much of the rest of the world struggles through a winter of intensifying death and disease, it is worth remembering that beyond the present darkness lies the dawn, as newly approved vaccines become widely available, and with that, perhaps, a return to something resembling normalcy.

But even so, the post-vaccine world will also be changed in important ways — many for the better. The global biotech sector — a product of decades of public-private partnerships to develop superior medical technologies — appears to have produced effective vaccines in a remarkably short period of time using radically innovative technologies and immunity pathways. It will be the first-ever, broadly effective vaccine against a coronavirus of any sort, and hence, potentially opens the door to vaccinated immunity to a range of far more common maladies, from influenza to the common cold.

For this, among other reasons, the carnage that COVID-19 has wrought will not remotely rival pandemics past. It has been common, especially in environmental circles, to imagine that modernity is fragile in all its simplified ecologies and complex, globalized economies. But as unprepared as the world was, and as interwoven as our worlds have become, modern societies are actually highly resilient to disruptions of this sort.

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Even as the world locked down, modern food systems and globalized supply chains mostly kept up. The economy crashed, but it didn’t collapse. Workplaces reorganized, manufacturing retooled, and supply chains reoriented to the new socially distanced reality. The economy that emerges from the pandemic will look different in important ways. Where and how many of us live and work will be changed. The pandemic will disrupt some long-standing trends and accelerate others.

Progress, in this way, often advances as much through crisis as by increment. It is not inexorable but rather an emergent feature of our shared and collective endeavors to create better futures for ourselves, our loved ones, our compatriots, and our fellow humans.

At the end of a normal year, this would be the space where we recounted the top breakthroughs of the year, meaning Breakthrough’s accomplishments and the progress achieved more broadly by the ecomodernist community over the past twelve months. But amidst a new wave of pandemic deaths, with hospitals overflowing and communities around the world locked down once again, that didn’t seem right. So instead, we thought it better to look to the future — to remember that these dark times will pass and that there are better days ahead, for humanity and for the environment. As we look forward, there is much to be hopeful for.

Peak Emissions?

Much has been made of the short-term collapse of carbon emissions at the onset of the pandemic, and some even tout it as a model for future climate action. But while forced inactivity and economic collapse in response to a massive public health crisis is no sustainable response to climate change, the economic shockwave that followed the pandemic likely did accelerate the peaking of global carbon emissions growth.

As Breakthrough has demonstrated through a series of analyses this year, long term economic and technological trends had slowed the growth of emissions significantly in the decade between the global financial crisis and the pandemic. The post-pandemic economy will likely never return to the same level of energy or emissions intensity that characterized the pre-pandemic economy, as older and less efficient capital stock shuttered in the face of falling economic output earlier this year and will never return to service. The energy economy that characterizes the economic recovery will be cleaner, more efficient, and more technologically advanced than the one that preceded the pandemic.

As Breakthrough’s Zeke Hausfather observed in an influential analysis earlier this year, “It has become undeniable that the world is undergoing an energy transition, and it is quite possible that global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels peaked last year in 2019…an emissions peak is an important first step, and a world of flat emissions is one where it is much more plausible to see policy helping bend down the emissions curve in the future than in a world of increasing emissions.”

Historical emissions from fossil fuels and industry (FF&I) from the Global Carbon Project. Future CO2 base case projections and uncertainties based on a linear projection of 2010-2019 GDP and CO2 per unit of GDP through 2030. The CO2 COVID-19 case uses the latest (October 2020) real market exchange rate GDP projections from the IMF through 2025.

The likely arrival of peak emissions means that, even in the absence of binding global treaties and high carbon prices, meaningful action to avert climate damage is possible.

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Quiet Climate Policy

With at most the narrowest of Democratic majorities in Congress, hopes for sweeping climate action appear likely to once again go unfulfilled. There will be no Green New Deal or national climate emergency. Congress will not mandate total decarbonization of the power sector by 2035 or put an economy-wide price on carbon. But in the long-term, that may prove fortuitous.

For years, we at Breakthrough have argued for “quiet climate policy,” or climate action that could be achieved as a co-benefit of broader economic, technology, and social policy. The COVID-19 pandemic has, if anything, strengthened the case for such an approach. Over the course of this year, we released a dozen policy papers detailing hundreds of billions of dollars in potential federal COVID recovery investment priorities that would create jobs, revitalize American infrastructure, and accelerate the transition towards climate-friendly energy, transportation, and agricultural systems.

That approach has borne fruit this holiday season. This month, Congress passed a COVID relief omnibus package that includes authorization of tens of billions in clean energy R&D, as well as extensions of clean energy deployment incentives and other energy innovation priorities. The package reflects years of work by pragmatists on both sides of the aisle in Congress, along with think tanks and policy shops like Breakthrough, Third Way, ClearPath, the Bipartisan Policy Center, the R Street Institute, the Energy Innovation Reform Project, the Clean Air Task Force, and many others in the energy innovation community.

Public investments like these will lower the cost of decarbonization, make clean energy cheap not just domestically but globally, and expand the coalition of interests dedicated to climate action. Far from a consolation for a disappointing election for Democrats, quiet climate policy will likely achieve far more than the loaded, polarizing, and ultimately impossible agendas that many of the most visible climate advocates continue to demand.

Click here to read our assemblage of climate-friendly COVID recovery policy proposals.

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The Death of Degrowth?

In contrast to the techno-optimism of ecomodernists and even many more traditional environmentalists, a very vocal and online minority has long insisted that the only way to tackle climate change and other major environmental challenges is to not only slow economic growth but end it, cutting global consumption deeply in order to avoid ecological catastrophe. Degrowth has no constituency to speak of in the real world and most of its proponents, being modern, western, educated elites, continue to consume at levels completely incompatible with the levels of consumption they advocate. But the notion has an outsized footprint in academia, in scholarly publications, and in the environmental media.

2020 was, it turns out, probably the biggest experiment in degrowth ever attempted. Millions of businesses shut down operations, and billions of people globally shut down their lives in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The American economy contracted by over 30% in the second quarter of this year, three times as much as the previous record quarterly recession.

Much of that degrowth was “voluntary,” as economic activity collapsed well before government-mandated lockdowns were implemented. People around the world took to baking bread, gardening, shopping locally at farmer’s markets, and sticking close to family and loved ones — exactly the sorts of things that degrowth advocates have long suggested would be better for both the environment and human well-being.

And while many of us came to better appreciate these simpler joys, few of us appear to have much desire to limit our futures in these ways. Around the world, citizens only acquiesced to the COVID shutdowns thanks to extremely generous relief packages, including cash payments, bonus unemployment insurance, and support for restaurants and other businesses whose commerce has been interrupted by the pandemic. These benefits provided the average American household with over $5000 of extra income this year. And even with unprecedented trillions spent on these relief programs, we think it is fair to say that neither mandated nor voluntary restrictions on travel and consumption have proven particularly sustainable. Even countries and states that performed well during the summer have seen huge spikes in COVID case counts and hospitalizations as people grow impatient with lockdowns and social distancing.

And all that for, in the end, not a particularly large environmental benefit, achieved at enormous cost. The marked drop in carbon emissions experienced in 2020 will prove minor and unsustainable in the grand scheme, even if it has ushered us a bit faster towards a peak in global emissions, as detailed above. As Alex wrote with Seaver Wang shortly after the first shelter-in-place orders were announced, “Extreme conditions of degrowth and reduced consumption that are near-unanimously considered intolerable in the long-term have failed to mitigate anything close to a majority of greenhouse gas impacts.”

Moreover, the cost of achieving these modest reductions in emissions has been prohibitive. As BTI’s Zeke Hausfather calculated this past spring, the implied cost per ton of carbon reduced due to degrowth associated with the COVID pandemic will exceed $1500 per ton of CO2, an order of magnitude greater than the most costly of “technofixes.”

The simpler life and end of hyper-consumerism that degrowthers imagine may be desirable for them. But it does not appear so for the billions in the global middle class who appear by all accounts extremely eager to return to restaurants, airports, and hotels. And it is certainly not an option for the billions more of our global neighbors who depend on subsistence agriculture for meager wages amid insufficient infrastructure and opportunity.

If 2020 has established anything, it is that the only way to mitigate the negative environmental externalities produced by global economic growth is through it. A richer world is both more resilient to the impacts of climate change and better able to invest in the advanced technologies and modern infrastructures necessary to mitigate it. That will be a world with plenty of time for baking, gardening, and other simple pleasures, but it is one that will need to swim with the long-term currents of economic growth, modernization, and technological innovation — a world made possible by the historically unprecedented wealth, security, and productivity that modern techno-society offers its citizens.

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Bottom-Up Global Climate Action

President Trump’s 2017 announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement met with predictable despair in most environmental quarters, even from those who just two years earlier had panned the agreement as woefully insufficient. But a funny thing happened in the years that followed. Conventional wisdom has long held that, in the absence of legally binding emissions cuts enshrined via international treaty, and particularly binding US commitments, nations would free-ride upon the mother of all global collective action problems. But instead of “free-riding,” the other signatories to the Paris Agreement have, over the last year, redoubled their commitments to decarbonize their economies.

This fall, the Chinese President Xi Jinping announced his intention for the nation to reach net-zero emissions by 2060, in what would be a monumental achievement for the world’s biggest emitter. Xi's plan included provisions to scale up solar, wind, nuclear, and other low-carbon technologies by an order of magnitude. China’s commitment was followed by Japan and South Korea and has arguably shifted the nexus of climate action from the West to Asia.

China’s announcement marks a shift that we, among others, have long called for. As Ted wrote five years ago this month,

"For over a decade, we along with a number of other folks have argued that progress on international climate mitigation efforts would require a fundamental shift. Where the top down approach focused on legally binding emissions targets and timetables has had no appreciable effect on global emissions, a bottom up bilateral and multilateral approach focused on real commitments to put clean energy infrastructure in the ground might begin to move the needle."

China’s commitment should prompt a reckoning among western environmentalists. Deep decarbonization will depend less on largely symbolic actions in rich countries and more upon the ability of emerging economies like China to reconcile the enormous material demands of populations still seeking the benefits of economic modernity with a carbon-free future. Insofar as the world succeeds in that endeavor, the West will follow, not lead. China’s groundbreaking announcement suggests both that that future may be closer than we think and that the only way forward is climate diplomacy built on bottom-up national capabilities and geopolitical interests, not binding treaties and top-down restrictions.

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The End of the Trump Presidency

America’s descent into division, polarization, distrust, and political dysfunction did not begin with Donald Trump and will not end with his departure from the White House. What is clear, though, is that America will need to reconstruct a viable political center if it is to find a way to navigate the profound differences in vision, ideology, interests, and identities that now divide the nation. Centrism has become a dirty word among partisans on both the Right and the Left, an affront to radical visions of America remade — in the name restoration for the former and reparation for the latter.

But there is no path to the social democratic utopia that progressives imagine given the United States present constitutional order nor a lasting MAGA majority that would not make a sham of American democracy and the rule of law. For better or worse, we are stuck with each other, and a functional federal politics — one that does not actively harm the national interest via acts of both omission and commission — will require that we figure out how to govern across our differences.

It is true that the corruptions and outrages of the last four years, to which Republicans turned a blind eye or, as often, actively supported, are unprecedented. There is no analogue on the Left at the national level in recent memory, and claims to the contrary can rightly be dismissed as gaslighting. But it is also true that one would have had a difficult time distinguishing most of the claims that the Left has made about the Trump presidency from those that it would have made about a far more conventional and mainstream Republican administration, and that the cultural power wielded by educated, progressive elites in the media, the academy, and the non-profit and philanthropic sectors has warped the lens through which Americans experience politics and created conditions ripe for reaction.

A return to comity, decency, compromise, and negotiation will require partisans to step back from the precipice, to pursue their visions of a better future in a manner that neither demands total victory nor requires total war. Perhaps we are past the point of no return. But as Trump reluctantly leaves the stage, there are signs the cold civil war of recent years may be thawing.

As noted above, and against assertions that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would allow no meaningful legislation to pass that might help his political opponents, Congress just passed the most significant climate and clean energy legislation in US history. Along with that came long-overdue relief for American families, workers, and businesses caught in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century and the worst economic downturn in almost as long.

That is a reflection of a dynamic much less noted by most political observers. After a decade of paralysis, the pent up demand to legislate on both sides of the aisle is enormous, and there is much that has been long neglected — from infrastructure to transportation to public health — that there is a broad desire across both political parties to address.

This common ground won’t bring an end to the deep divisions that have sundered the American polity. But it might create new opportunities to engage the political other in ways that take those conflicts off the boil and create some room to breathe and reconsider in a politically exhausted nation.

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