Can Our COVID-19 Response Prepare Us For Future Climate Emergencies?
What can our global responses to COVID-19 teach us about how to cope with future climate related pandemics?
Does this unprecendented event help more people connect planetary health to that of our societies?
Pyotr Kurzin investigates how COVID-19 impacts both our climate commitments and our responses to future emergencies.
The coronavirus and climate change.
Perhaps not the first connection that would be at the forefront of your mind considering everything else happening related to COVID-19.
Unsurprisingly, the scale of the global pandemic is genuinely unprecedented – much like the use of that word itself – and even with the loosening of quarantines, the relaxing of things remain uncertain and the threat of a second wave is very likely.
But educating ourselves surrounding current events is one of the best ways to be better prepared for unpredictable circumstances. It is a significant part of how we, as individuals, can play our role in overcoming COVID-19.
And that goes for understanding the relationship between the global pandemic threat and the global climate threat too.
For many, it can be difficult to fully relate to what is happening to the climate globally. It all seems distant and unrelated. But it is essential to think about. Anything 'global' will inevitably affect us in some way, just as COVID-19 has swept the world and affected every single person.
I want to consider three main questions:
- What were the initial reactions around the environmental impact of COVID-19?
- To what extent have these changed as countries have loosened their lockdown measures?
- What does it mean for our global climate commitments?
Considering these, this article acts as a part 2, building upon my first, which looked at how COVID-19 impacted the UK's climate commitments.
What were people's and countries’ initial reactions?
When considering the relationship between coronavirus and climate change, on the face it of it, the connection might seem rather farfetched.
Sure, a direct causational relationship doesn't exist, as the WHO states that climate change does not cause COVID-19.
But that does not mean parallels can't be drawn between them.
They are both global threats.
COVID-19 and climate change affect people, communities, and countries irrespective of their wealth, size, geography, location and so on.
They have one single significant difference: timing.
With COVID-19, the threat is immediate, is obvious and requires action. However, with climate change, the risk is long-term, rendering it less visible and our urgency dims.
And that is why, in the early periods of the outbreak, with the globe grappling with the scale of its threat, parallels were being made but our responses are very different.
Because COVID-19 exploded onto the world stage as an immediate threat, it was treated as one, while climate change has been lingering and intensifying over time gradually, making it open to more scepticism and manipulation.
"The sudden threat from one global pandemic revealed our incompetence to be ready for others. And that does not bode well for global climate commitments"
Initial hope and optimism
Initially, the plunge in daily carbon emissions from commuters and airline traffic paved the way for optimism and hope because of how the pandemic would 'give the world a break' or that it would finally be the start of the green movement.
Initially, observations highlighted how the impact of COVID-19 would finally allow the global economy to meet its climate targets of bringing the temperature in line with the 1.5C limit.
Or how the examples of emboldened wildlife, improved oceans and other waterways and so forth prompted the speculation that this was finally the opportunity where communities and nature could better integrate with one another.
However, while these sentiments were seemingly positive, they were mainly on social media and reactionary to the immediate effects of the pandemic. But sadly, while positively intended, they weren't based on facts.
For instance, this initial period revealed that while individual actions, like not flying or working remotely do reduce emissions, they only did so partially, because they only really looked at the reduction of consumer activity.
Sadly, the emergence of COVID-19 has quickly drawn attention away from climate action, the 2020 UN Climate Summit (COP26) in Glasgow has been postponed until an unspecified date. Worst still, the scare of COVID-19 has made nation states completely shelve their climate commitments, with the pandemic underlining the costs of not developing comprehensive solutions to solve systemic risks.
In addition, the sudden threat from one global pandemic revealed our incompetence to be ready for others.
And that does not bode well for global climate commitments.
How have countries' lockdown measures affected their response to the climate emergency?
Unsurprisingly, and unfortunately, the effect of lockdowns ending meant that as soon as they were loosened, most populations simply adopted a 'return to normal' approach.
During the lockdown peak, CO2 emissions fell by 17% compared to 2019 globally, while individual countries saw reductions ranging between 25-30% highlighting the variability between countries’ own climate activities and the impact of the lockdowns.
However, what has quickly become evident is that these reductions won't last.
Data has already indicated that amazingly, despite the pandemic, global emissions may still surpass 2019 levels.
Even though April was peak lockdown, May more than compensated with a rebound in the concentration of CO2 still being almost 3% higher compared to May 2019.
While this might not sound like much, the point is that the numbers are still rising despite a global pandemic and shows the lack of a priority for climate change especially when other issues appear.
Because climate change is such a distant threat, and hard to relate to, people and governments simply do not prioritise it as something they should be concerned about.
Even when they absolutely should.
"An event that produced in only two weeks the same effects of the entire two-three years of the financial crisis of 2008-2010 highlights not just the scale of the pandemic, but its rate"
Business as usual
Estimates have been made about the cost of continuing business as usual, whether in people's individual behaviour or businesses and governments’ choices in how they restart their activities.
This is possible by looking at previous global crises, such as the 2008 Financial Crisis or even a regional-specific case, such as the Euro Debt Crisis over 2010-2012. During both of those, governments were more than willing to forgo specific standards or perhaps conveniently 'overlook' environmental violations so that firms could regain their footing and therefore be less of a burden on the state.
So, just imagine the case with COVID-19.
An event that produced in only two weeks the same effects of the entire two-three years of the financial crisis of 2008-2010 highlights not just the scale of the pandemic, but its rate.
In both cases, the unpreparedness of governments and institutions is clear, alongside the fact that what was a first local issue within a rural region of China exploded upon the entire globe and made countries wholly overwhelmed.
And unfortunately, this means the focus on climate action, at least until COVID-19 is decisively handled, will be completely side-lined in some countries.
Aside from the all-important UN Climate Summit being delayed, individual countries, and most dishearteningly, the world’s largest contributors to climate change are unashamedly reversing or not enforcing environmental standards like Brazil, the US and China.
Furthermore, these countries are all governed by leaders or parties who not only remain openly climate sceptical but in worse cases actively opposed to climate change efforts.
This means, not only will they not look to minimise the adverse effects from rebounding economic activity, but they will do all they can to amplify it and that will only accelerate the likelihood of 2020 becoming the worst year for global emissions.
Back at a consumer level, there are countless examples of populations flouting social distancing guidelines as lockdown measures are gradually eased.
From Europe to Asia, many populations are reverting to old habits, either by flocking to beaches in masses, waiting in farcical long queues to obtain fast food, or attending illegal raves resulting in impudent behaviour and piles of plastic pollution in areas as fragile as national parks.
And all this at a time when the emergence of a second wave is increasingly evident.
Not only is South America continuing to see a growth in the case numbers, China, Australia, parts of the US and Europe are seeing resurgences.
Yet, interestingly, these current trends may well work in favour of the broader climate movement and how countries respond with their commitments.
How does a COVID-19 second wave impact our climate response?
The previous statement might seem counterintuitive. Cynical even. BUt how it is interpreted is paramount.
Specifically, while the emergence of secondary waves may be what is needed to finally incentivise governments to realise and commit to developing effective, comprehensive response mechanisms to pandemics that take no prisoners.
Indeed, while the economic downturns or dismissal of countless employees are the worst consequences imaginable, these severe ramifications may be precisely what is needed to accelerate the shift to alternative energies and greener economies – even those firmly committed to using fossil fuels.
And for this be guaranteed, it might still depend on the direction of COVID-19.
Let's take China, the origin of the outbreak, as an example.
Data from various research centres have indicated Chinese air pollution is returning and even surpassing pre-COVID-19 levels, also it points out that highly pollutant industries rebounded quicker than all other sectors.
But the reappearance of the COVID-19 around many parts of China shows a cost of continuing with business as usual:
- That this only just reignites the risks of climate change and not making more of an effort to implement sustainable policies
- But more pressingly, that the increase of pollution weakens people's immune and respiratory systems, effectively every organ in the body.
And so, this makes nearly everyone more susceptible to COVID-19.
Second waves are emerging among people previously unaffected as much, including at an alarming rate among younger populations.
Societies’ negligence and complacency towards how we approach our climate commitments are becoming the very sources that make us more vulnerable to the pandemic and less able to beat it.
Our coronavirus response could be our climate response
Unless countries worldwide start taking their climate commitments more seriously, we will only subject ourselves to the coronavirus for far longer and suffer far worse as a result.
It is undeniably clear at this point we owe it to ourselves to reform how we interact with the environment.
Luckily, it might not purely take these developments for progress to occur.
The unfortunate dire and inadequate responses around the globe has shown how woefully prepared we are for global, transnational emergencies of any kind.
So, while it is too late to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, we can continually learn from our mistakes to reduce the potential impacts of climate change by developing adaptable, multilateral and transnational mechanisms.
By building the solutions to address one, we will do half the work to respond to the others.
Build back better
More encouragingly too is that though people have reverted to 'business as normal' behaviour, in many ways this was a mainly reactionary due to lockdown fatigue. Research shows strong support for including more environmentally conscious policies and approaches in any post-COVID-19 recoveries, such as with more emphasis on improving public health through environmental health.
The relationship of mental wellbeing and state of the environment is a growing one – especially with younger generations, culminating in the phenomenon of eco-anxiety.
Unless efforts to meet global climate commitments are made, the costs from environmental degradation will go beyond merely the physical, leaving much worse mental and emotional scarring for all.
COVID-19 is the last thing anyone would have wanted as the trigger to finally stimulate action to tackle and protect ourselves from the genuine and far-reaching threats of climate change.
Communities, countries and individuals all have the power to ensure how we respond and overcome COVID-19 is how we approach climate change.
It just requires emphasising our collective interests over self-interest and looking at the long-term rather than just short-termism.
Paradoxically, the costs of one global threat may well be what ensured we saved ourselves from another.
Pyotr Kurzin is a British-Russian based in Washington DC, and a Thematic Specialist for Amnesty International. Follow more of his content at My Global Muse.