The coronavirus has forced the world to pause, causing significant economic pain on one hand, but offering an unprecedented opportunity to rewrite global policy on the other. The climate change crisis has not gone away, it carries on in the background of the pandemic, so experts are calling for policymakers to tackle economic recovery post COVID-19 and climate change together – by rewriting the rules.
Flights are grounded, businesses are shut, and shops are closed whilst many countries remain on lockdown. Such significant reduction in global activity is causing a major decrease in the volume of carbon dioxide being emitted. For instance, Carbon Brief estimates that global CO2 emissions during 2020 could drop by 5.5 per cent compared with 2019, while the Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects US emissions to drop by 7.5 per cent alone.
The impact of the fall in emissions was first observed by NASA satellites sending images of a dramatic decline in pollution levels over China. The pictures were taken a few weeks after the Chinese government put Wuhan and other major cities on lockdown in an attempt to contain the virus causing China's NO₂ levels to drop 40% in January and February compared to 2019 levels – a fall that equates to removing 192,000 cars from the roads.
Meanwhile in Europe, experts predict that declining power demands and minimal manufacturing could cause emissions to fall by nearly 400 million metric tonnes in 2020 – representing 9 percent of the EU’s cumulative 2020 emissions target. However, even with such a stark decline in emissions, there is a long way to go in order to prevent the 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming that will cause catastrophic repercussions the world over.
The actions taken to suppress the spread of the virus around the world, by ordinary people, businesses of all sizes and governments alike, show the impact of collective action. As a result, the pandemic has created the opportunity to re-evaluate global policies and activities, to see how things could be done differently. The difficulty, however, lies in putting observations into action to avoid sliding back into the status quo.
The concern is that as the peak of the virus passes, and countries begin to lift their lockdowns to get back to work, global carbon dioxide emissions will climb, reverting back to pre-pandemic levels. Therefore, to ensure the effects of climate change are kept to a minimum, efforts must be made to ensure global emissions show an economically sustainable decline, long term.
Some experts argue that the pandemic and climate crises could be tackled together through policies and government strategies that address several underlying issues that worsen the impact of global shocks. For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic is once again highlighting that well-resourced, equitable health systems are essential protection from health security threats, including climate change. This pandemic, as with all health shocks, is hitting the most vulnerable the hardest through high death tolls due to insufficient health infrastructure. It is also forcing families into extreme poverty as health shocks – caused by viruses or climate issues - act as poverty multipliers as people are unable to work, or because they have to pay for health care.
Yet, at least half of the world’s population does have access to basic health services. As Ian Goldin a professor of globalisation and development at Oxford University and author of Age of Discovery, Development and Terra Incognita warns; coronavirus could be the ‘biggest disaster for developing nations in our lifetime’. He says: “The poorer the country, the less capable it is of addressing people’s pressing needs, from identifying and treating cases of the virus to supporting communities and businesses deprived of income.”
Consequently, the coronavirus is rapidly reinforcing the need for governments to focus on supporting strained national health systems if economies and societies are to be resilient against the impacts of climate change and potential future epidemics. As Sir Michael Marmot, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at UCL and Chair of the WHO’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health explains, the pandemic highlights the need to continue to put the likely impact on health equity at the heart of all policymaking. He says: “That would lead to better environmental policy, it would lead to better social policy, it would lead to better healthcare policy and better political policies.”
In addition, the threat of the coronavirus is, on average, greater for cities and people exposed to higher levels of pollution, which are most often people living in poorer areas. The same is true for the health impacts of climate change. Therefore, ensuring emissions remain low serves to improve the health of lower income communities and also minimises the impacts of climate change on an environmental level.
David Miller, director of international diplomacy for the C40 network of cities is therefore calling for policymakers to shift their focus towards lowering energy costs and air pollution, rather than tackling climate change on a macro level. In some cities, this approach is already in action. For example, in Accra, Ghana, the government has invested in a solid waste collection system in place of informal dumps, improving health and lowering emissions of the dangerous gas methane, and creating jobs.
Another way the coronavirus could help countries around the world readjust activities to reduce emissions long term is to plan economic stimulus that includes spending on green infrastructure. Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, a Nairobi-based climate and energy think tank, said; "It is vital that the economic stimulus governments are putting together now, is green and is directed at a sustainable path."
Indeed, analysts and environmental groups believe doing so could help tackle the two crises at once. For instance, the British government announced plans for GBP 1bn ($1.15bn) spending on green transport in its 2020 budget. They plan to install rapid charging hubs for electric cars, a policy that aims to simultaneously supports a new industry and create jobs, whilst delivering a strategy to reduce emissions from cars.
In the United States meanwhile, Jeffrey Schub, executive director of the Washington-based Coalition for Green Capital is lobbying to channel the economic stimulus budgets through green banks, or through a proposed national green bank. So far green banks in the US have provided $1bn in loans to construct $4bn in climate-smart infrastructure. As Schub explains; although lawmakers may worry a push for green spending in response to the coronavirus pandemic looks opportunistic "you have to put people to work and clean infrastructure is a really obvious and natural place to do it".
Supporting this approach, on the 26 March, representatives from 17 countries published an open letter that urged the European Commission to start work on a comprehensive EU recovery plan from the pandemic that integrated a green transition and digital transformation. The letter from Heads of State and Ministers suggests that the Commission uses the European Green Deal as a framework for this exercise, requesting that the Commission remember the challenges of climate change when designing long-term strategies for a resilient recovery from the “unprecedented crisis” of the pandemic.
The letter says: “The focus is presently on fighting the pandemic and its immediate consequences. We should, however, begin to prepare ourselves to rebuild our economy and to introduce the necessary recovery plans to bring renewed, sustainable progress and prosperity back to Europe and its citizens. While doing so, we must not lose sight of the persisting climate and ecological crisis. Building momentum to fight this battle has to stay high on the political agenda.”
The scale and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is such that it presents an unprecedented opportunity to make changes to how we live, work and trade that enable greater global prosperity in the future. By continuing the sense of shared humanity the pandemic has inspired, social and economic systems should be rebuilt to be more resilient and compassionate and fair, by promoting health, equity and climate responsible behaviours.
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