Fossil Fuel Financing, COVID-19 Recovery, and the Perils of a Return to Normalcy
Statement of Positionality:
This blog post was written on the traditional territory of the Attawandaron/Attawandaronk/Chonnonton, as well as the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, in what is now known as Guelph. I acknowledge that my position on environmental and political issues has been, and is continuously, shaped by my privileges and personal lived experiences. As a white person I do not intend to speak on behalf of communities of colour or Indigenous peoples, but rather I strive to use writing as a tool to amplify awareness of important topics. I am always open to learning, and hope to be corrected if my writing contains errors or misrepresents issues that do not affect me directly. My background in health sciences has solidified my belief in a universal right to a healthy environment, and I am proud to work with SUTE to push for meaningful actions to oppose systemic environmental racism.
I’m sure many of us have said it. I know I have. “I miss when things were normal”, or perhaps “when things get back to normal…”. With all the uncertainty we’ve collectively experienced since the beginning of COVID-19, these sentiments are largely justifiable. While some elements of normalcy are truly worth fighting for, such as hugging a grandparent without fear of transmitting a deadly disease, many large-scale efforts to return to business as usual are proceeding rapidly and ought to be questioned, and in some cases, resisted. In this article, I will not necessarily present any new information; many people and organizations around the world have already voiced concerns regarding a return to so-called normalcy. A quick Google search of 'COVID-19 recovery plans' reveals myriad opinions about how we should be reconsidering and restructuring various aspects of society. Specifically, this article will touch on recent investments by the Canadian government in the fossil fuel industry which, in effect, represent a renewed commitment to the status quo of an economy based on non-renewable resources.
Indeed, Canada has committed at least $16 billion towards supporting fossil fuels since the beginning of COVID-19 (1). This number, very much a figure in-progress, comes from the team at https://www.energypolicytracker.org/ who are compiling publicly available information to track new and amended energy-related policies. The majority of this $16 billion in support money is ‘unconditional’, while $1.86 billion (around 15%) of these funds have various conditions (in other words, there are certain strings attached). For example, to see their share of the funds, some fossil fuel companies will need to clean up oil-related pollution or work to decrease methane gas leaks (2).
Amidst all the tragedy, uncertainty, and economic distress associated with COVID-19, the way in which we, as individuals and a nation, choose to adapt and recover from the pandemic represents a massive opportunity to restructure our lives and societies for the better. At the federal level, allocating substantial funds to the fossil fuel industry in the midst of a pandemic does not align with necessary efforts to mitigate climate change, nor is it inspiring for today's youth who are fighting for a livable future.
Considering the flip side of the coin, the Federal Government has committed slightly over $2 billion towards clean energy projects since early 2020. While this is no doubt a large sum of money, it only represents one eighth of what the government is willing to invest in fossil fuels. Such a contrast paints a pretty clear picture of the government’s current priorities, and ultimately, their vision for the future.
For many in Canada and around the world, experiencing the burdens of climate change was already ‘normal’ prior to COVID-19. Climate refugees had already begun fleeing their homelands due to climate change; see the recent New York Times feature entitled ‘The Great Climate Migration’ (3) for more information on this topic. We also know that climate change and associated environmental issues disproportionately affect BIPOC communities, from Indigenous people in the Canadian Arctic experiencing accelerated warming temperatures (4), to the intersections between anti-Black racism and negative environmental health outcomes (5). With climate change at the root of so many injustices, is it ethical for the government to prioritize funding an industry that directly contributes to climate change? In Canada, financing fossil fuels is a standard feature of energy policies, but a refusal to deviate from this norm equates to an acceptance that the (unevenly distributed) impacts of climate change are increasingly just another element of normality.
It’s clear that changes are needed. Paul R. Carr, professor at Université du Québec en Outaouais and a UNESCO Chair in Democracy, Global Citizenship and Transformative Education, asserts that “returning to ‘normal’ post-coronavirus would be inhumane” (6). Canada is certainly not the only nation facing criticism for its approach to recovery. Over in the UK, George Monibot concurs that their government’s “‘return to normality’ will only mean more consumerism at the expense of the planet” (7).
So how could things be done differently? Yes, it's not practical for Canada to stop using oil and gas tomorrow. That said, attention (i.e. money) should be overwhelmingly directed towards ensuring a just and rapid transition for fossil fuel workers towards a clean energy economy. And yes, it can be difficult to not feel hypocritical while advocating against massive investments in fossil fuels when I personally use oil-based products on a daily basis. However, the notions of individual responsibility and presumed activist hypocrisy, beloved by fossil fuel executives everywhere, have been effectively refuted time and time again. Here (8) and here (9) are some of my favourite examples.
Referring specifically to COVID-19 recovery plans, numerous public figures and organizations have outlined a vision for how we can use this opportunity to better protect people and the planet. The David Suzuki Foundation, promoting the hashtag #BetterThanNormal, is collecting signatures for an open letter that will be sent to members of parliament advocating for a just and sustainable recovery (10). Alongside a set of guiding principles and targets, this letter requests MP’s to “adopt a well-being economy framework that broadens the definition of what constitutes success”. The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment recently published their Healthy Recovery report which provides 25 recommendations for a “safe and healthy recovery” (11). Clean energy, transportation, buildings, healthcare, and nature expansion and conservation were all key areas for government consideration. Moreover, this pandemic has undoubtedly increased public awareness of the intimate relationship between human health and our environment, and providing greater protection for wilderness habitats could help prevent future transmission of disease from wildlife to humans.
To wrap up, climate change and COVID-19 are complex issues. While there is no single plan or policy that could perfectly resolve these crises, the way in which governments are responding to these massive (and surprisingly interconnected) challenges demonstrates where their values and priorities truly lie. It won’t be easy to transition away from fossil fuels, nor will it be easy to eradicate COVID-19, but bold and imaginative plans that deviate from the status quo are evidently required. Instead of further financing the fossil fuel industry, just think of what could be accomplished with $16 billion (and counting).