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Economic Giants Are Restarting. Here’s What It Means for Climate Change.

As countries begin rolling out plans to restart their economies after the brutal shock inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic, the three biggest producers of planet-warming gases — the European Union, the United States and China — are writing scripts that push humanity in very different directions.

Europe this week laid out a vision of a green future, with a proposed recovery package worth more than $800 billion that would transition away from fossil fuels and put people to work making old buildings energy-efficient.

China has given a green light to build new coal plants but it also declined to set specific economic growth targets for this year, a move that came as a relief to environmentalists because it reduces the pressure to turn up the country’s industrial machine quickly.

What course these giant economies set is crucial if the world is to have a fighting chance to head off the blistering heat, droughts and wildfires that are the hallmarks of a fast-warming planet.

Just as their recovery plans are taking shape, though, the political pressure on world leaders switched off: On Thursday, the United Nations announced that the next round of global climate talks, which had been slated for Glasgow in November, would be delayed.

The Glasgow talks are the most important climate meeting since the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015, after 20 years of negotiations. Under the Paris pact, which was largely designed to work through peer pressure among nations at annual meetings, world leaders were expected to announce revised targets this year for reducing emissions.

That peer pressure is now suspended for a year. Advocates for climate action urged national leaders to not squander the time.

“If the necessary climate action can be embedded in recovery efforts then this year will have been a year when we pivoted for good,” said Rachel Kyte, a former United Nations climate official and now the dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “If we are distracted from climate action and fumble in the recovery, then we will have pivoted to an even darker road.”

Not only has the Glasgow meeting been postponed, global protests demanding climate action have come to an abrupt halt and the pandemic has reinforced the impulse of nationalist leaders to reject international cooperation.

“It’s now vital that countries make use of this extra time and ensure their economic recovery plans are climate smart and do not prop up fossil fuel companies,” said Mohamed Adow of Power Shift Africa, an advocacy group based in Nairobi. “It would be shameful if rich countries recharge their economies on the backs of the climate vulnerable.”

The virus-induced lockdowns around the world have resulted in a sharp drop in greenhouse gas emissions in recent months, but the decline was nowhere near enough to shake loose the thick blanket of gases that already wraps the planet. More important, greenhouse gas emissions are expected to go back up as countries reopen, especially if their recovery packages don’t pivot away from fossil fuels.

“It will be a very, very challenging way forward in terms of international climate momentum,” said Li Shuo, a Beijing-based policy adviser for Greenpeace. “Covid-19 should be interpreted as a very negative factor for international climate cooperation.”

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Credit…China Stringer Network/Reuters

A great deal of “horse trading,” Mr. Li added, is now taking place among Chinese officials. The country’s recovery package, estimated in the range of $800 billion, has been formally proposed but much remains unclear about how it will be spent. In addition to suspending growth targets for this year, the government in Beijing is giving its blessing to new coal plants, and signaled that environmental impact reviews could be relaxed.

“A lot is still in the air,” Mr. Li said, though he noted that China’s leaders tend to prioritize economic and social stability in the near term.

A lot remains in the air in the United States, too. The Trump Administration, which is pulling the United States out of the Paris accord, has used the coronavirus pandemic to relax an array of environmental rules. Embattled Republicans and their allies have been testing the argument that climate friendly policies would kill jobs and crush an already ailing economy, though there is no evidence to support those claims. And, while the early United States aid packages have resisted calls to boost renewable energy, and fossil fuel companies have dipped into the relief money, the next rounds of government stimulus are still in play.

The biggest unknown is the presidential election: The presumptive Democratic candidate, Joseph R. Biden Jr., has pledged to rejoin the Paris Agreement, vowing that the United States would “take a back seat to no one when it comes to fighting climate change.”

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 28, 2020

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.


The European Union faces its own uncertainties. The bloc’s executive branch, which has already proposed to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050, still has to sell the package to 27 national leaders who don’t always agree on the speed of a green transition.

The proposal, made public Wednesday, was praised by environmentalists for pushing for measures that would also create new jobs, like the plan to retrofit old buildings and encourage the production of no-carbon fuels, like hydrogen.

Governments are under considerable pressure to aim for what is called a green recovery. A survey of central bankers and finance ministers found broad support around the idea that the most effective economic recovery measures would also reduce emissions, including clean energy infrastructure.

“The recovery packages can either kill these two birds with one stone — setting the global economy on a pathway toward net-zero emissions — or lock us into a fossil system from which it will be nearly impossible to escape,” the authors wrote.

And hundreds of groups representing health professionals urged the leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies to turn away from fossil fuel subsidies.

“A truly healthy recovery will not allow pollution to continue to cloud the air we breathe and the water we drink,” their letter read. “It will not permit unabated climate change and deforestation, potentially unleashing new health threats upon vulnerable populations.”