Commentary |
29 December 2020

There are reasons to feel OK about 2020, but a long-forgotten worry got worse

Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Sam Roggeveen
Sam Roggeveen

We’re all itching to see the back of 2020, but here are a few reasons to feel slightly less depressed. Not about everything, but about three issues you probably spent a lot of time worrying about this year: COVID-19, climate change, and the state of democracy around the world. Fair warning, though: it’s not all good news. This piece ends with a caution about one issue that you probably stopped worrying about a long time ago.

Let’s begin with the good news. First, the unprecedented pace of COVID-19 vaccine development. As science magazine Nature reported, the fastest any vaccine had been developed previously was four years. The first COVID-19 vaccine was approved in early December and is already being rolled out to millions. This is partly a victory for technology, but it also needed government and private funders who were willing to take risks on various vaccine projects knowing that not all of them would work out.

It’s a reminder that when government and private industry work together and compete with one another on an urgent problem, they can get big things done.

Which brings us to climate change, and specifically the fact that it is getting cheaper – much cheaper – to generate electricity without increasing CO2 emissions that warm the atmosphere. Researcher Max Roser from Our World in Data reported on December 1 that the price of solar electricity generation had decreased by 89 per cent over the last decade. For onshore wind energy, that figure is 70 per cent.

Again, this required a combination of technology and policy – we wouldn’t be seeing these gains today if governments had not invested early in technology which, at the time, had few attractions for the private sector.

As a result, we can now see a clear glimpse of a future in which we break the nexus that drives climate change. Economic growth has always been tightly correlated with growth in emissions - you can't have one without the other. Understandably, no government is willing to sacrifice the economy, no matter how sincere it is about saving the environment. Cheap, clean electricity has the potential to free them from this impossible choice, and will finally allow humanity to create wealth without polluting the atmosphere.

To be clear, although these technological advances will help, they won’t solve the problem. Climate experts tell us that even if CO2 emissions stopped tomorrow, there are enough emissions in the atmosphere already to guarantee costly and dangerous levels of climate change.

Another piece of good news on climate change in 2020 came in September when China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, committed to carbon neutrality by 2060. A month later Japan, the world’s fifth-largest emitter, said it would be carbon neutral by 2050.

Of course, it is impossible to bind future Chinese and Japanese leaders to these long-term pledges, but public statements do impose accountability because if either country backslides, they will need to explain why. Public statements also encourage other countries to follow along.

But above all, what these pledges signal is that the good news about clean energy is not a chimera or a distant dream. These two governments, both of which have a laser-like focus on growing their economies, now see a realistic and achievable path towards breaking the nexus between economic growth and emissions growth.

Joe Biden’s election victory also improves the odds of meaningful US action on climate change, and it had one other important benefit: it showed that the warnings we have been hearing over the last four years about America drifting toward fascism were overwrought. In fact, those worries would have been misplaced even if Trump had been re-elected. After all, the same country that elected Trump had also handed the presidency – twice – to a black, liberal Democrat named Barack Hussein Obama.

The fact that Trump gained support among black and Latino voters in the 2020 election also complicates the narrative of rising white nationalism.

Trump’s election in 2016 encouraged the idea that ideological polarisation is the key to understanding American politics today. But America is in many ways becoming a more tolerant and pluralist society, not less.

Like every other Western democracy, including our own, the rise of extremism is exaggerated while the rise of public dislocation from politics is almost totally ignored.

Politics has become highly professionalised, cut off from ordinary citizens who no longer see politics as something to participate in. The vast majority simply ignore politics altogether while a tiny minority engage in it as if it is a professional sport and only their team is pure of heart and motive. If you want to worry about democracy, worry more about the hollowness at the centre of the political process, and less about headline-grabbing extremists.

Finally, if one worry is not enough for you, spare a thought for how humanity deals with the thousands of nuclear weapons in the armouries of nine nations, two in particular.

It is difficult to measure these things, but compared with a year ago, the likelihood that nuclear weapons will ever be used again seems to have gone up, not down. Relations between China and the United States are at their lowest point in decades. Neither side wants to fight the other, but both want something that only one of them can have: leadership in Asia.

The danger is that one or both sides miscalculates the power and resolve of the other. Perhaps Xi Jinping will mistakenly decide that the United States is no longer committed to the defence of Taiwan. Or maybe Biden will miscalculate. On the campaign trail in 2019 he asked, rhetorically, "China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man". This is dangerously dismissive of a country which is set to have the biggest economy in the world, and already has the world’s largest navy.

When miscalculation leads to conflict, there is no saying where it ends. Neither side will want to use nuclear weapons, but neither side will want to lose. So ... um ... happy New Year?

Sam Roggeveen is director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program.