What Covid19 can teach us about the climate crisis – and what we should do about it
The world is at war with two invisible killers. The first – Covid19 – has infected over 2.5 million people, forced millions into lock-down, caused widespread job loses and led governments to requisition productive assets to an extent not seen since World War Two.
The second is climate change. The projections for human suffering from our current anticipated 4C of global warming are alarming. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change warns that extreme weather events and sea level rise will likely lead to millions of deaths and terrible hardship1 . A Call to Action by global health organisations in 2018 described climate change as the “greatest public health challenge of the 21st century”2. Climate change is slower moving than Covid19, but this does not make it less lethal.
Despite these twin threats, calls to delay action on climate change are becoming louder3. This is not a time for building windmills and solar farms, it is argued. Governments need to focus on battling the pandemic, protecting jobs and boosting growth.
These arguments are wrongheaded and dangerous. Of course, we must fight this pandemic. But this need not be – and must not be – at the expense of action to confront the climate emergency. To take such a pathway would only add to the human tragedy. Instead, Covid19 should act as a wake-up call to help galvanise more concerted action to protect the planet.
We should also ensure we learn key lessons from the pandemic and the ongoing global response.
Governments can act fast and decisively
First, Covid19 has demonstrated beyond doubt that governments can act fast and decisively to fight a common threat. Within the space of just a few weeks, they have closed down schools, hotels, restaurants, factories and almost all international travel. Petrol demand in key western markets is expected to fall 50% as people stay at home; air travel through Europe’s busiest hubs has plummeted by over three-quarters in two months from the end of January4 5. Inaction on climate change is frequently excused by policy-makers claiming impotency in the face of such a systemic threat. Covid19 has exposed this as a myth.
Of course, government action has only been possible due to public support. In most countries citizens have overwhelmingly backed tough measures even when faced with enormous personal sacrifice from lock-downs, whether from lost livelihoods, schooling or individual freedoms. This support has been built on the back of intense media campaigns. It has also led to a high level of adherence to new behaviours. To take one obvious example, it has become entirely normal to keep two metres from anyone we happen upon in the course of an excursion and indeed socially frowned upon to venture nearer.
Public support is crucial
This leads to a second vital lesson: if we are to achieve a groundswell of support to fight global warming, people must understand the true scale of risk and why their help is needed. Hearts and minds must be won to underpin behavioural change.
Set against the blanket quarantine imposed to tackle Covid19, the kind of changes we must shoulder – wearing an extra layer of clothing rather than turning up the heating; walking rather than driving where possible; holidaying closer to home – appear decidedly manageable. Indeed, efforts to mitigate climate change would allow us to keep hold of some of the benefits we have experienced from the lockdown: less traffic and aircraft noise, disappearance of air pollution and safer streets to mention just a few.
Business plays a key role
A third lesson is that business is vital to achieving success. But for this to be market-wide, governments must provide clear direction and attractive incentives.
When it comes to direction, it needs to be made clear that Paris-alignment is not optional. Most governments have signed the Paris Agreement and some, including the UK, have set net zero statutory targets for 2050. But these will remain empty promises unless translated into net zero commitments by key decision-makers through the economy.
Company directors should explicitly set out their commitment to align the business with getting to net zero emissions by 2050; and publish how this will be delivered with interim targets. The commitment should be added to companies’ articles of association. Those in professional sectors such as lawyers, auditors, investment bankers and asset managers should all commit to align their business activities with the Paris Agreement. Where commitments are not forthcoming, they should be mandated; and climate misconduct must be robustly sanctioned.
At the same time, the search for climate solutions needs to be properly incentivised. Human ingenuity will be vital to get us onto a net zero pathway, just as it is critical to finding a cure for Covid19. The gargantuan fiscal packages being rolled out to get the world through today’s pandemic offer a unique opportunity to take climate incentives to a new level. It would be a travesty if taxpayer money was used to sow the seeds of the next crisis by propping up carbon-intensive activities rather than building a low-carbon future.
We must act today, not tomorrow
A fourth lesson from this pandemic is that we must act today, not tomorrow. Exponential virus incidence charts present a terrifying picture: the prospect of losing control. For climate change, while the time frames cover years rather than weeks, scientists anticipate non-linear warming pathways to be compounded by sudden and unpredictable feed-back loops if we pass certain thresholds. The costs of reversing a negative spiral and the human suffering in the meantime do not bear thinking about.
The coronavirus is sadly killing hundreds of thousands of people but with unprecedented efforts, we will come through it. The climate crisis poses an altogether more terrifying prospect both in scale and longevity. Put simply, there is no going back to ‘normal’. We can, however, act to save millions of lives if we choose to.
1 IPCC, 2014, WGIIAR5 (5th Assessment Report), Chapter 11, “Human health: impacts, adaptation and co-benefits” –https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/WGIIAR5-Chap11_FINAL.pdf.
3See for instance: https://www.ft.com/content/052923d2-78c2-11ea-af44-daa3def9ae03
4FT, “Global Petrol demand to plunge as US stops driving”, 28th March 2020