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The Coronavirus Crisis: A Wake-Up Call for Climate Change or an Accelerator?

The COVID-19 pandemic has briefly cut global emissions, but could countries around the world simply return to business as usual in their attempts to repair the economic, political and social consequences of the virus once it has eased?

One of artist Antony Gormley’s ‘6 TIMES’ statues in the Water of Leith, Edinburgh
The Coronavirus Crisis
A Wake-Up Call for Climate Change or an Accelerator?

The COVID-19 pandemic has briefly cut global emissions, but could countries around the world simply return to business as usual in their attempts to repair the economic, political and social consequences of the virus once it has eased?

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It seems obvious to say that, if we can transform the economy for a virus, we can also do so to prevent climate change.

In the face of the worst pandemic seen for decades, countries across the world have put their economies into deep freeze at enormous economic and human cost, as unemployment rises and businesses collapse. 

Governments have committed more than $3 trillion to protect and eventually revive economies. Saving lives from the Coronavirus became more important than the economy almost overnight – a dramatic change when the optimisation of profit has long been the driving motive. The result has been an unprecedented shutdown, causing the biggest disruption in decades. The world is either heading for recession or depression. Whereas the 2009 financial crisis reduced global GDP by 0.1%, the International Monetary Fund estimates that COVID-19 will lead to a 3% loss – 30 times the size of 2009. 

As of mid-April, there are more than two million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 134,000 deaths. The disease is not only deadly, it is still an unknown quantity. It may have long-term health consequences even for those who recover, immunity may not last long, and the disease itself may mutate. This is the grim reality.

Acres of column inches have already been written about how the Coronavirus is going to change our economies, politics and societies forever. That it could lead to the return of active government, for example, and a stronger safety net now that the limitations of current Western models have been exposed. Even if it does, the result could be draconian, as it already has been in the illiberal authoritarianism instituted in Hungary. Or we could swiftly return to normal.

Perhaps the stakes are highest when it comes to climate change. The virus has proved that, not only as individual countries but as a planet, we can transform our economies and our way of life in the face of an external threat. We can choose to prioritise something – in this case, human life – above the maximisation of profit and even our individual freedom. We can choose the collective good over our personal preference, whether that be to travel or simply to leave the house. The experiment is a work in progress but, for now, it is working. 

This should mean that we can do something just as far-reaching to prevent climate change. It is just as much in all of our interests to do so. Unchecked, climate change will wreak far greater damage on our ability to live safe, profitable, happy and free lives than COVID-19.

Coronavirus Recovery May Raise Fresh Concerns for Environment

For decades, the scale of the threat has been matched only by our collective failure to respond. As well as the obvious consequences for infrastructure, coastal cities and biodiversity, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) reports that “any increase in global warming is projected to affect human health, with primarily negative consequences”. Climate change will make us sick and cost lives, yet we have carried on regardless. 

Even worse, climate change is already costing lives and impacting health. 250,000 deaths a year from climate change is a “conservative estimate“. It could “halt and reverse” progress made in human health over the past century. It will cause malaria, diarrhoea, heat stress and malnutrition. Reduced food production is predicted to lead to a net increase of 529,000 adult deaths by 2050. It could force more than 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030, which would make them more vulnerable to the health effects of the changing climate. 

Deaths are not only increasing in developing countries, as if that would make it any better, but in rich countries too. Heatwaves last summer killed 1,435 people in France alone, the only country to have published statistics on heat-related deaths. We are running out of time to turn back. 

We are in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, but sadly the early indications are not good. The pandemic has briefly cut global emissions, giving the atmosphere and the planet a brief respite from human attack. But, despite this brief dip in emissions, there is a risk that the pandemic – which is likely to dominate politics for months or even years to come – will overshadow environmental concerns. 

Climate talks have already been delayed and new policy initiatives postponed. The danger is not just that we go back to normal after the lockdown, but that countries use more energy in an attempt to recover. China is ramping up heavy industry as its lockdown ends – in March it approved more coal-fired power plants than it did in the whole of 2019. 

But, there is cause for hope. “We are now going to go into deep recession, possible depression, and we have to find a way for the digging out from that to be greener and more equitable,” says Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University and previously the UN’s top clean energy official.

“What we have seen from all of this is that we can make changes,” argues Nicholas Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. “We have to recognise there will be other pandemics and be better prepared. We must also recognise that climate change is a deeper and bigger threat that doesn’t go away, and is just as urgent.”

COVID-19 could be the wake-up call we need to stop climate change in its tracks and to prepare for inevitable future pandemics, any of which could be far worse than today’s virus. But, it could just as easily leave our economies damaged but unchanged, and – as in 2009 – instigate energy intensive stimulus measures that would boost emissions. It’s up to us to choose. 

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