The COVID-19 crisis has shaken the foundations of both modern society and world economy. However, the impacts of the pandemic pale in comparison to those of climate change. There are nevertheless elements in the international approach to the coronavirus that can help us effectively carry out climate action.
The COVID-19 crisis has shaken the foundations of both modern society and the world economy. Public agendas at all levels are dominated by the pandemic, which has overshadowed all other topics, including climate change.
However, the impacts of COVID-19 pale in comparison to those of climate change. The UN estimates that this pandemic will generate at least $1 trillion in economic losses worldwide in 2020. Considering the current meager efforts to combat climate change, there are projections suggesting that the latter would generate around $600 trillion in losses by 2100. In other words, this is the equivalent of 7.5 coronavirus crises per year, for the next 80 years (and that is only when considering economic impacts).
Despite the difference in the scale of consequences, there are elements in the approach to this pandemic we can build on to effectively carry out climate action —i.e., the set of strategic, global and multisectoral commitments to preserve the life support systems that make our planet habitable.
The first element is the degree of cooperation required. By the end of March, 100 countries had imposed localized or national quarantines, resulting in the unprecedented disruption of the routines and livelihoods of billions of people who had to isolate and discover a ‘new normal.’ Achieving climate change goals also involves a coordinated, large-scale, individual and collective effort to build a new paradigm, a new normality in the consumption of goods and services, and a cultural transformation towards a circular economic system where the reduction, reuse, and recycling of resources prevail.
Second, the importance of making bold and timely decisions. In recent weeks, the ability of many governments to take both preventive and crisis management measures in order to avoid bottlenecks, the overload of public health systems, irreversible losses, and possibility of serious economic damage has been questioned. In the case of climate change, the problem is not any different, although the delays and hesitation have extended not for three months but for almost three decades, since Rio 92, the first United Nations conference on environment and development. The most ambitious commitments made by countries under the 2015 Paris Agreement cover only a third of the greenhouse gas emission reductions necessary to keep the world below 2°C of warming.
Thirdly, and in line with the above, political will and determination to implement a coordinated and ambitious plan that is commensurate with the challenge is necessary. Both in the case of COVID-19 and climate change, technologies exist to help with their containment––on the one hand, diagnostic tests, respirators, intensive care units; on the other, renewable energy, carbon capture and sequestration (and use), batteries, and market mechanisms (e.g., a carbon tax and carbon credits). It is the incentives and the leadership to effectively deploy these technologies that are lagging behind.
The fourth element is the vulnerability of certain groups. This pandemic represents a major risk for senior adults, immunosuppressed people and those with certain pre-existing health conditions. Moreover, structural social and economic inequalities render deprived groups more vulnerable to COVID-19. Climate change is already affecting underprivileged populations, who are exposed to droughts and floods, food insecurity, forced migration, geopolitical conflicts, and not one, but multiple health crises. Thus, climate change threatens the last fifty years of progress in development, public health and poverty reduction.
Finally, overcoming the crisis of COVID-19 requires solving the recession that the world economy is heading towards and also rethinking work, travel, public health and social interaction. Furthermore, both issues must be addressed with climate change in mind. Green policies to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions must be deepened, accelerated, and expanded. In Europe, politicians, businesses, unions, academics and NGOs have recently come together and declared their support of such measures, including sustainable mobility, renewable energy, building renovations, research and innovation, the restoration of biodiversity and the circular economy. This clamor and commitment to climate action must spread to the rest of the word, and fast. Because the simple and enormous teaching of this pandemic is that the solutions to the vital crises that are shaking our civilization are unfailingly collective, and need to happen now.