What can coronavirus teach us about tackling climate change?

Comment Science and Technology

Good news, air pollution is down due to coronavirus lockdown measures! Climate change avoided for now, surely?

In the short-term, we will see a big drop in global emissions but, as we’ve already seen in China, once the outbreak is over and industrial production and transportation ramp back up, so do the emissions. Instead of reverting to our old ways, why don’t we use the COVID-19 outbreak as a kickstart to our new eco-friendlier way of life?

“If one virus can wipe out the entire economy in a matter of weeks and shut down societies, then that is proof that our societies are not very resilient”, says climate activist Greta Thunberg. Society in its current form is just as inflexible to climate change. So, what can we learn from one global crisis to inform another? Despite our response to COVID-19 demonstrating that we can put the brakes on our business-as-usual approach, this radical approach should in no way be considered the gold standard when responding to other crises, like the climate crisis. Putting our society into lockdown has led millions to struggle amid the induced financial crisis, with untold long-term effects on people’s wellbeing.

We can put the brakes on our business-as-usual approach

Instead, the first lesson we should draw from the COVID-19 pandemic is that a well-resourced, equitable health system is paramount to protect us from health security threats, and yes, this includes climate change. Increased climatic variability combined with warmer average temperatures alters the seasonality of certain infectious diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever which peak in the warmer months. There will also be further public health consequences from disturbed food-producing ecosystems and more extreme weather events. Like almost all health shocks, the virus has hit the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest, acting as a poverty multiplier by forcing families into further poverty where they have to pay for healthcare. Promoting universal healthcare, which requires robust financing structures to be implemented, is one of the most effective ways to increase resilience to both pandemics and climate change.

A second lesson can be drawn from the root of the two global crises: the pursuit of infinite growth at the expense of the environment on which we depend. This even crosses over into our concerns of novel virus outbreaks. For example, consider the growth of mass production of food which has resulted in large-scale farms, all packed full of massive numbers of livestock – this is the perfect environment for the emergence of new diseases (see Rob Wallace’s book Big Farms Make Big Flu). It is estimated that three out of four new infectious diseases come from human-animal contact – the likely transmission route for COVID-19 too. The origin of the virus is just one example of where the commodification of life to gain a profit can directly endanger humans. With the risk to public health and the natural environment, it is clear our current production and consumption patterns cannot go on unrestricted.

We can also draw hope from our response to the coronavirus pandemic and apply it to our climate action strategy. Reducing the risk of transmission has been costly; consider the damage to global shares, the billions offered by the government to keep businesses afloat and the cancellation of major events and conferences. Climate change mitigation, by contrast, offers many more win-wins. We can reduce greenhouse gas emissions whilst simultaneously lowering our energy bills by adopting renewable energy production and improving our air quality. Sounds good, right? Despite the negative impact lockdown has brought on many people’s lives, people are still (for the most part) following government guidelines by staying at home. By emphasising the win-wins of climate action, we could motivate further action by individuals and governments.

We will be in a better place than ever to make the transition from fossil fuels to renewables

Coronavirus isn’t the solution to climate change, but it should be the catalyst for restructuring our social and economic systems. When rebuilding our economy in the wake of the pandemic, we must invest in our long-term future, rejecting the obvious and easy choice of returning to business-as-usual. Any bailout of the airline, oil and gas industries, which have all taken a hit due to the pandemic, should be at its bare minimum. Strong conditions for environmental and climate protection must be imposed upon them, with the overall aim of moving away from fossil fuel production.

After the 2008 global financial crisis, there were aims of “greening” the economy in this way which all but failed. In the post-pandemic era, we will be in a better place than ever to make the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, as the cost of renewables is now lower than fossil fuels.

The coronavirus pandemic has forcefully interrupted the existing habits of individuals, meaning we are now in a stronger position to usher in some of the changes needed to tackle climate change, shifting economic activity from a globalised to a more localised pattern. We could become more accustomed to a way of life that minimises consumption; it could encourage us to commute and travel less, reduce our household waste and rely on local supply chains, as many have been forced to during the pandemic.

If we, as a society, are serious about launching an emergency response to the climate crisis, there could be real potential for the COVID-19 pandemic to leave our mass travel and consumptive behaviour in a completely different pattern to where it started.

Let us make real global climate action, from individual to governmental level, the legacy of the coronavirus pandemic.

Image source: Miroslava Chrienova

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