What COVID-19 can teach us about tackling climate change

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Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

We are living through truly remarkable times. COVID-19 is proliferating and threatens to infect between 40% and 70% of the population, which would result in millions of deaths.

Society’s response to COVID-19 is equally alarming — to date, we’ve observed overt racism, hoarding, travel bans and lockdowns. The measures taken to arrest COVID-19 — which are virtually unprecedented outside of wartime — threaten to derail the economy, destabilise financial markets and fray our already fragile social fabric.

The poor are likely to suffer disproportionately. Those on the breadline simply can’t afford a disruption to their income and, depending on their country’s health system, can’t afford to get sick either.

Sound familiar? Not to take away from the urgency of the current situation, but if we compare the challenge of fighting COVID-19 with addressing climate change, there are strong parallels, albeit over different timeframes.

For example, if we fail to limit climate change, it threatens to impact the vast majority of the world’s population, potentially causing millions of deaths — we refer to this as the physical risk of climate change. Similarly, if we delay action and subsequently take draconian measures, we risk destabilising the economy and causing mass disruption — we refer to this as the transition risk of climate change.

Strong measures hurt the most vulnerable and may ultimately be ineffective

Imagine it is the year 2030. The world has taken insufficient action and annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have not yet peaked. There is no chance of limiting climate change to below 1.5 degrees now — the world is approaching a tipping point, which threatens runaway climate change, affecting millions of people over the coming decades.

As the world realises its predicament, there is a collective call for urgent action, the likes of which have not been seen before. Under substantial pressure, politicians (finally) listen to scientists and the public. They take urgent and meaningful measures to reduce GHG emissions. All non-essential air travel is banned, petrol and diesel cars are banned, production of non-essential goods is halted, red-meat is heavily restricted, coal powerplants are closed down and electricity use is strictly rationed until the supply of renewable energy can catch up.

The measures have a marked effect. Air pollution in industrial centres drops to levels not seen in decades. Global GHG emissions also drop significantly, especially from the electricity, transport and agriculture sectors.

An unavoidable side-effect, however, is that the harsh measures also cause mass disruption. The world enters a severe and protracted recession, causing a widespread spike in unemployment. The poorest are hit hardest, causing the wealth divide to grow.

Meanwhile, scientists warn that the measures are too little, too late. They say that there is still a sizeable chance that we can no longer stop further increases in global average temperatures.

It doesn’t have to be like this

Now imagine we were given a one-year head start on COVID-19. Say we were able to predict the virus and could act against it. If we were sensible — and that’s a big if — countries would have strengthened their health and screening systems and the world would be well on the way to finishing an effective vaccine. The virus wouldn’t stand a chance.

Unfortunately, that’s where the parallels with climate change start to break down. We already know about the looming risk of climate change and we already know what needs to be done — in fact we’ve known for decades.

While we’ve left it very late, it is still technically possible to limit global warming to a ‘safe’ level of well below 2°C, but only if we act urgently. If governments act tomorrow, by putting in place measures that will spur a massive investment in transitioning to a low carbon economy, we might just get through this relatively unscathed.

The challenge is significant. Within a relatively short timeframe, all electricity must be generated from renewable sources (with storage), transport networks must be electrified, heavy industry must switch to using electricity or green hydrogen, and all waste must be recycled.

While such large-scale rewiring of the economy will be costly, it will be manageable. The required investment will create new sectors and employment, which will offset some of the negatives. More importantly, making this upfront investment will enable us to decouple future growth in the economy and emissions.

A low or zero carbon economy enables the world to continue to prosper, without costing the planet. Doesn’t that sound like a better scenario than runaway climate change and/or mass disruptions?

Life after COVID-19

It is difficult to predict when the COVID-19 threat will end — it could be months; it could be over a year. We will get through COVID-19, but it will undoubtedly change us. When we emerge from lockdown, we will be subtly different people.

The question we should be prepared to ask ourselves is how we combat the next threat — climate change. That will be a much larger challenge and it is not nearly as certain that we’ll get through it.

We can make a good start by continuing some of the positive behaviours that we learnt during the COVID-19 crisis. For example:

· Do we really need to fly to that next business meeting? Video-conferencing isn’t perfect, but it is certainly less of a hassle and a much greener option.

· Can we work from home more often? After weeks of working from home, one or two days a week doesn’t sound so bad.

· Do we really need to fill our houses with clutter that is made in faraway factories? As it turns out, all we really need to survive is enough food, water (and loo roll…).

· Do we need to always travel around the world to relax and enjoy ourselves? There is a wealth of experiences to be had in our backyard.

· Do we need to eat fresh meat every day? Turns out dried pulses and pasta can be pretty tasty.

The one thing that I do hope we learn from all of this, is the importance of early action. I hope we realise that our window of opportunity to address climate change is closing and that we must act fast. If we take this onboard, then at least we will have salvaged one positive from this current predicament.

Stay safe everyone and be kind to one another.

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