Can the COVID-19 Response Teach Us Anything About Tackling the Climate Emergency?
Although the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change may at first seem unrelated, both crises pose a serious threat to the lives and the well-being of billions of people regardless of the geographic area. In both cases populist leaders have been seen downgrading the scale of the problem, too. Other parallels are no less direct: how can national economies be rebooted when the uncertainties of the pandemic are so immense, just as the economic risks implicit in climate catastrophes are immense — such as damage to property and infrastructure, lost productivity, or mass migration? Yet only the former crisis is proving that significant changes and sacrifices can be made in order to save lives. Between the ‘flattening of the curve’ policy and the preparation for the prospective recession resulting from a national lockdown, a worldwide wave of action was put in motion, showing that any serious response is possible when political will is at stake.
Why have similar actions not been undertaken towards tackling the climate emergency, which has been on the agenda for decades? Scientists prove on a daily basis that temperatures and air pollution levels resulting from human activity keep rising, and even with the current lockdown, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) estimates that the pandemic only has a marginal impact on the reductions in the carbon dioxide emissions. Keeping these harsh realities in mind, one may ask whether any of the approaches towards the COVID-19 outbreak can be useful in protecting citizens from the impacts of climate change? Although it is too early to assess the actual impact of the former, some insights seem to be of a rather general nature and applicable to different types of challenges.
Believe in science
During the current coronavirus health crisis, global citizens tend to put their faith in science more than in politicians, and the value of knowledge and expertise has become increasingly clear. Medical professionals and mathematical modellers have turned celebrities in their countries and beyond. The advice of epidemiologists on social distancing and on ‘flattening the curve’ has gone viral, and doctors have become heroes. Could this represent a turning point in a trend towards appreciation of experts and of evidence‑based policy? Whatever the answer, the experience from the still ongoing pandemic can be capitalised on to increase the trust in the science of climate change and to win this other fight, too.
Climate change is a global health crisis, too
Although this may seem provocative, the climate and environmental crisis is a global health emergency as much as the COVID-19 outbreak is. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 91% of the world’s population live in places with poor air quality, leading every year to 4.2 million deaths as a result of exposure to ambient air pollution and 3.8 million deaths as a result of household exposure to smoke from dirty fuels. According to another report, every new‑born baby will be affected not only by environmental externalities (leading to chronic lung and heart conditions), but predominantly by climate change. What is particularly worrying is that the above-mentioned change in temperatures works to extend the coverage of many diseases, making them more common and dangerous. Examples include mosquito-transmitted diseases (dengue and malaria), haemorrhagic fever and the Zika virus (cf. Table 1).
Source: The Climate Vulnerability Monitor 2nd Edition, https://daraint.org/climate-vulnerability-monitor/climate-vulnerability-monitor-2012/.
The novel coronavirus, discovered in China in December 2019, has so far killed more than 160,000 people, and infected almost 2.5 million in 210 countries and territories around the world, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker, which is collecting cases reported by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other national sources (as of April 20, 2020, 14:00 CET).
Yet, despite the significantly smaller number of people struggling with the COVID-19 disease than with climate change, the impact of the virus has been sudden and dramatic, unlike that of the climate change, which is old, slow, and steady. It is clearly for this reason that it causes less alertness among societies and governments. It is unclear, however, why the numbers do not speak for themselves.
Unless we act now
Although it is still too soon to assess individual countries’ strategies for containing the virus, it becomes clear from looking at the real time world statistics on COVID-19 that some countries are handling the pandemic better than others. There is something that those countries have in common — when the coronavirus appeared, they quickly enforced social distancing and detection measures, both medical and technological. For example, South Korea was initially one of the biggest infection clusters outside of China, but thanks to the widespread testing policy and technology‑enabled tracing of (potential) virus carriers, the situation has been brought under control, with the country becoming a role model for others. Such a lesson of resolve and preparedness could apply to the climate crisis, too. Just as delaying social distancing was not helping the fight against the coronavirus, so is there no time to waste in implementing mitigation measures against future worst-case climate scenarios. We know that in order to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, reduction of emissions needs to be coupled with a quick boost of green technologies, and that it needs to be done now.
In the fight against the COVID-19 outbreak, the people-centric approach has become a priority. Individuals all over the world are re-arranging their daily routines when they volunteer in hospitals, sew masks, and help the elderly with grocery or pets. Politicians, often backed by central banks, announce financial packages to support those who lost their jobs and those who had to lock down their business because of the pandemic.
The most vulnerable groups, with patients, medical staff, and the elderly opening the list, have made it to the top of the agenda not only for the governments, but also for the private sector. The multinational companies such as GM and Dyson have adapted their production lines to provide hygiene supplies and medical equipment, particularly ventilators. Not all the companies are letting people go, and some, including Amazon and numerous branches of Tesco and Aldi, are actually increasing wages and planning further recruitments.
All this shows that a large-scale people-centred approach to a global crisis is possible. Such a compassion and proactive approach in taking care of those most vulnerable should also be addressed to those most exposed to climate and environmental externalities.
Green investments boost
Although a worldwide recession caused by the coronavirus seems inevitable, the crisis opens up a new path for more sustainability in our everyday lives. Volumes of money now spent on the recovery might have seemed utopian before the pandemic but will be a reality in the post-COVID economy. For example, in the European Union (EU), restrictions of the Stability and Growth Pact have been eased. Germany unleashed around EUR 750 billion for the stimulus package, almost matching the estimated expenditure on the entire EU Green Deal. Similar tools could be considered to increase investments in renewable energy sources (RES), energy efficiency measures, and an overall carbon-neutral economy, including a tailored ’Just Transition Mechanism’ to the workers and communities affected by decarbonisation requirements. Relief plans must not reinvest in fossil-fuel-backed industries but create jobs in green sectors as the public funds and taxpayers’ money should be invested in improving the efficiency of low-emission alternatives.
At the same time, with the requirement of social distancing in place, people all around the world have accepted unprecedented constraints on their everyday freedoms and ways of life. This cultural change is in fact no less important than the technological investments. The crisis‑communication platform that keeps Belgian citizens up-to-date on the epidemic developments in their closest neighbourhoods, the reorganisation of public spaces in Bogota with expansion of bike lanes so that citizens can avoid public transport, or the introduction of working-from-home schemes all around the world — all these did not require serious investments or a technology revolution, but only a new way of thinking.
Climate change has been on the scientific agenda for much longer than the COVID-19 outbreak, and tools to fight it are already in place; what we need at this stage is the political and social will to apply them. Surely, no one knows what the world will be like once the pandemic is over, but the elementary mindset change and cultural revolution we are observing now may prove crucial to avoiding a climate catastrophe.
Undoubtedly, prioritising climate action in such uncertain times is a difficult task. With more than a third of the world’s population under some form of lockdown, the risk of 195 million full-time workers losing jobs Q2 2020, and turbulences expected in the public finance systems extending for many years to come, it is challenging enough to plan the coming days, much less the next decade. The COVID-19 pandemic is definitely not over yet, but it has already exposed certain ordinary truths more than any previous crisis. We have instantaneously realized that some challenges are borderless; that without solidarity, no single country can manage a pandemic outbreak; that scientists and experts should be heeded; and — last but not least — that delay in action is deadly. If we can perceive the current crisis as a breakthrough, perhaps we can emerge wiser to ensure a greener and healthier planet for all. If we are attentive observers, we had better start acting on these lessons now.