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8 Reasons Why the Coronavirus Pandemic Has Primed Us to Tackle the Climate Crisis

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

2nd July 2020

A crisis like the climate emergency has no precedent, and many people struggle to comprehend how we can tackle it. But the coronavirus pandemic has shown us what can happen when we put our minds towards tackling a global crisis. In April 2020, half the world’s population, around 3.9 billion people, from 90 countries largely heeded advice and went into lockdown to try and prevent the spread of the virus.

What we’ve seen is that this pandemic has laid the foundations for social, economic and environmental change, while also exposing flaws in traditional arguments against tackling the climate emergency, which still remains the most urgent crisis we face. On our current trajectory we are headed for a 3C-4C temperature rise by 2100. To put this in context, we need look no further than Mark Lynas’s new book, Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency, where he explains what each degree of warming would look like:

“We are already living in a world one degree warmer than that inhabited by our parents and grandparents. Two degrees Celsius, which will stress human societies and destroy many natural ecosystems such as rainforests and coral reefs, looms on the near horizon. At three degrees I now believe that the stability of human civilisation will be seriously imperilled, while at four degrees a full-scale global collapse of human societies is probable, accompanied by a mass extinction of the biosphere that will be the worst on Earth for tens or even hundreds of millions of years. By five degrees we will see massive positive feedbacks coming into play, driving further warming and climate impacts so extreme that they will leave most of the globe biologically uninhabitable, with humans reduced to a precarious existence in small refuges. At six degrees we risk triggering a runaway warming process that could render the biosphere completely extinct and for ever destroy the capacity of this planet to support life.”

Credit: T. M. Lenton et al. Nature, 2019. Source: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03595-0

There is no underestimating the challenge we face and the urgency of action required. Coming out of lockdown gives us a unique opportunity to change our societal behaviours and initiate a green and healthy recovery from this pandemic. This will not only help address the climate crisis, but can also deliver many health and wellbeing benefits. Logic dictates that this is the only route we should be considering.

Listed below are eight reasons why now is the right time to prioritise a green and health recovery.

1. We have six months to avert a post-lockdown emissions rebound

Fatih Birol is the executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), which is regarded as the gold standard for energy analysis. In an interview with the Guardian, Birol warned that we only have six months to prevent a post-lockdown rise in emissions which could kneecap efforts to tackle the climate crisis.

Instead the IEA published a report calling for a green recovery, stating that wind and solar should be a priority, in addition to improving the energy efficiency of buildings and modernising electricity grids. According to the IEA’s analysis, focusing on the jobs involved with these measures would be more effective than those within our current carbon-intensive economy.

2. The world’s medical organisations are calling for a green and healthy recovery

Joining the urgent call for a green recovery from the pandemic are more than 350 medical and health organisations, representing over 40 million health professionals in 90 countries. In May, they wrote a letter to the G20 leaders calling for a healthy recovery post-COVID-19. Amongst the signatories are the World Medical Association, British Medical Association, International Council of Nurses, European Respiratory Society, and the Standing Committee of European Doctors (CPME).

They say, “A truly healthy recovery will not allow pollution to continue to cloud the air we breathe and the water we drink. It will not permit unabated climate change and deforestation, potentially unleashing new health threats upon vulnerable populations.”

They go on to write that, “If governments were to make major reforms to current fossil fuel subsidies, shifting the majority towards the production of clean renewable energy, our air would be cleaner and climate emissions massively reduced, powering an economic recovery that would spur global GDP gains of almost 100 trillion US dollars between now and 2050.”

3. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has called for a green recovery

Gita Gopinath, the IMF’s economic counsellor, has said that investing in a green recovery could help ease unemployment that has been brought about as a result of the pandemic. She went on to say that countries have to tackle the climate crisis and that they’ve been given an opportunity to do just that with a green recovery from COVID-19.

She is quoted in the Guardian speaking to the commons Treasury committee about the opportunity we have in front of us, saying that, “Do public investment that also addresses the need for a greener planet, and at the same time as a jobs-rich recovery”.

4. The public support a green recovery from COVID-19

Climate Assembly UK, are a group of 108 members of the public (representative of the population), whose job is to discuss and identify ways of achieving the government’s 2050 goal of net zero carbon emissions. According to the Guardian, around 80% of the members support a green economic recovery from the pandemic. Around 93% of the assembly believe that both employers and the government should encourage behavioural changes after the easing of the lockdown. This indicates there is significant support from the public for a green recovery from the pandemic.

5. The demise of the oil industry?

Analysts have been speculating as to whether the simultaneous impacts of the coronavirus and the oil price war, might have triggered the beginning of the end for the oil industry. In June, the Guardian mentioned a report which stated that COVID-19 could cause the value of fossil fuel reserves to fall by two-thirds, and could lead to a $25tn collapse in the fossil fuel industry. More recently, BP said that it would cut the value of its fossil fuel assets by $17.5bn, stating in their forecasts that the pandemic could affect the demand for oil for 30 years.

Many people are also getting to grips with home-working and online video conferencing for meetings, which could reduce the need for local and international travel, thereby helping to speed up the transition away from fossil fuels.

6. We can find funding to tackle the crisis

A common argument put forward for not acting on the climate crisis is that it would cost too much. Questions are also raised about where finance would come from to deal with the changes required. The coronavirus crisis has erased this argument, showing that in times of crisis, governments can invest money when it’s needed to protect public health. The G20 countries have said they are injecting over $5trillion to stimulate the global economy, due to the coronavirus crisis. The IEA calculates a higher figure of $9tn, which governments are planning to spend over the next few months to rescue their economies.

With many economies suffering from the fallout of COVID-19, there is even more reason to make a transition towards a carbon-free economy as this could create numerous employment opportunities as suggested by the IEA. Amsterdam is one place leading the way in this regard, as the city plans to implement Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut’ economics model as a means of tackling the climate crisis and operating within planetary boundaries, while still being able to meet the needs of its citizens.

7. We’ve regained a trust for science

Health experts from around the world have become household names, as citizens, governments and the media seek out sound and reliable advice. This represents a massive attitude shift, as scientific advice around the climate crisis has been largely ignored by governments, the media and the public.

The media have also been blamed for their coverage, or lack thereof, of the climate crisis. Learning from best practice from this pandemic could help improve media coverage of the climate emergency and thereby encourage leaders to act on the available science.

8. We’ve had time for global introspection and reflection

According to Inger Andersen, the UN’s environment chief, nature has sent us a “clear warning shot” with the coronavirus crisis, warning that failing to take care of the natural world means that we’re also failing to take care of ourselves, as it’s usually human behaviour that causes these diseases to transfer across to us.

This period of isolation has given people time to stop, think and reflect on their lives and on the wider world. In a book by Greta Thunberg’s mother Malena Ernman, Our House is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis, she writes about, “Burned-out people on a burned-out planet”, and suggests that this has come about because we’ve turned our backs on each other and on nature. However, during this crisis we’ve come to realise what we truly need to survive and re-assess our over-consumption and materialistic habits. The seeds of change have been sown and people have entered into a mind-set of doing what’s necessary to tackle urgent global issues.

As Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac say in their book The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis, it’s not good enough to tell our children and grandchildren that we tried to act, rather we have to be able to say that we tackled the climate crisis because, “We did everything that was necessary.”

Governments have a precious and unique opportunity to build a cleaner and greener world, one that reshapes our relationship with nature and avoids the risk of runaway climate change. It’s imperative they seize this chance, and it’s up to each of us to make sure this happens.

My debut children’s picture book, Hedgey-A and the Honey Bees, is about the need to protect bees from pesticide pollution. It can be purchased online here.

Published inThe Climate Crisis