18/03/2021

Masks against climate change

3 min
The price of electricity forecast for today will be the second highest in history.
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It seems that antivirus masks with a higher protective capacity than the current ones and, moreover, made with biodegradable materials, that is, that do not generate plastic waste, are about to be launched on the market. It is good news, which I take as an example to comment on some things that have been happening in recent months, and on which I think we should reflect.

1. Four interrelated challenges. For some time now, we have been facing four challenges that make our current way of life difficult: ecological unsustainability, the health challenge, digital globalisation and, above all, the growing inequality between people and between countries. All four represent dangers, but also opportunities for our future. I think that the decisions, defensive or positive, that we make about each of them do not always take into account their repercussions on the others. I will comment on some situations that concern me.

2. Solidarity and self-protection. We talk a lot about unsustainability, but we often add "of the planet", "of such and such a species", or "of the climate". It seems that we are asked to be in solidarity with all this, but the reality is simpler. The reality is that the planet will not be able to continue giving life to 7 or 8 billion people with the kind of life that we, the 2 or 3 billion call ourselves "developed", have now; even less so if we reach 10 or 12 billion! Therefore, without forgetting solidarity, what we have to think about is above all that it is also for our own protection and that of our descendants. It's not only about protecting the whales or the climate, but also about protecting the species homo. Perhaps then it will be easier to commit.

Still on the subject of sustainability, I see a lot of talk about energy transition, often understood as switching from fossil fuels to renewables, sun and wind. This is important, but it is even more important to increase efficiency in the energy use that each of us makes, so that we use a significant percentage of the energy that is generated and not a small part, as happens now due to the large losses that the whole process has. Fuel switching is a global action, but gaining efficiency is a personal responsibility that we often forget. It is not just a matter of switching to solar energy, but of being much more careful with our consumption.

3. Individual health and global health. Health must be protected from the threats of viruses. Increasing scientific knowledge and modern technological tools, both biological and digital, help us do this. They allow us to create health weapons and enable us to avoid transmission by reducing, when necessary, presence at work, in social life or in transport. But the national selfishness of not sharing knowledge and tools (think of what is happening with vaccines) will make it much more difficult to win the battle and will be another element that will lead to an increase in inequalities between people depending on where they live and their social position.

The ability to transmit information digitally is making differences more apparent, increasing awareness of inequality and aggravating confrontations at local and global levels. As long as a significant part of the world's population remains unprotected against infection, the battle against the virus will not be won; and this inequality will be one more element that will be added to the many lacks of opportunities and inequalities, and will be a new cause of migration and global tensions.

4. Difficult political decisions. I understand that very often the measures that have to be taken at the political level have positive consequences for some challenges, but create difficulties for others. There are almost always winners and losers. That is why two principles must be borne in mind.

First, we must be very careful and transparent in measuring the importance of the effects in one direction or the other and, once it is decided that the expected positive results outweigh the possible problems created, we must establish a series of compensatory measures that make the situation less painful for those who are harmed. These are political decisions, taken with expert advice but not left to them. We must accept responsibility, make them transparent and very clearly explained.

Secondly - and I return to the masks - the ideal would be to find measures which, while being useful for dealing with one challenge, do not make the others worse. Of course, if they are useful to improve in two, we would be in an ideal situation. The example of the biodegradable mask, if it improves filtration efficiency and eliminates waste generation, is a model case. I have sometimes wondered whether it would not be a good idea for public or private institutions that organise funding actions for scientific or technological research programmes to add criteria of this type to the terms and conditions of their calls for proposals.

Joan Majó is an engineer and former minister

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