Opinion: What does COVID-19 mean for climate change?

We have seen pictures of clear skies over the streets of New Delhi and clean Venice canals for the first time in a generation. As the global pandemic gives the planet a chance to catch its breath, Richard Dawson asks what COVID-19 means for climate change?

Yesterday (April 22), people around the world came together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, an event that helped sparked the modern environmental movement and which is now infinitely tied up with the existential threat of climate change.

The climate agenda has gained serious momentum in recent years, as more people are affected by the consequences of decades of fossil fuel consumption and the warming of the planet.

Whether it be storm surges in America, forest fires in Australia, flash floods here in the UK or the staggering loss of biodiversity globally, it seems like everywhere we look, we are confronted by the realities of climate change and the impact we have on nature.

Environmental activists hoping for a reprieve from man-made degradation of the natural world could not have imagined a ceasefire of the magnitude ushered in by the coronavirus pandemic.

As a result of the global economic slowdown triggered by nationwide lockdowns to combat spread of the disease, our planet is drawing breath for the first time in a generation.

Already we have seen nature reclaiming urban spaces, whether it be jellyfish swimming in crystal clear Venice canals, monkeys fighting for food in Thailand’s Lopburi, sika deer running down streets in Japan’s Nara Park or wild goats descending on the Welsh town of Llandudno.

Levels of pollution and air quality have also massively improved in the world’s cities. Pictures of national monuments in parts of India and China that are normally shrouded in plumes of smoke appear clear as the eye can see.

Given that air pollution is estimated to be responsible for 4.2 million deaths annually, even if this is only a temporary phenomenon, it is surely one of few silver linings to be drawn from this pandemic.

The question of what COVID-19 means for climate change is an important one, which can only be answered in the fullness of time.

What we know right now is that, at least in the short-term, coronavirus has replaced climate change as the world’s most urgent crisis.

The implications of this supersession are wide-ranging.

For example, there is concern that the momentum environmental issues have built in recent years, will simply fizzle out as individuals’ priorities change to a much shorter horizon.

There is also the possibility that the “whatever it takes” approach many governments have taken to battling the health and economic crisis will mean that longer-term, cumulative issues like climate change are pushed to one side in the recovery process.

This is, to some extent, what happened after the 2008 financial crisis. Similar falls in global co2 emissions and air pollution were recorded in early 2009 after the crash but were quickly cancelled out as economies sought to recover by any means necessary.

Sustainability was not hard-wired into the strategy to get out of the last recession but that does not mean it can’t be this time around.

Indeed, a recent report by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) says that efforts to counteract the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic fallout should focus on opportunities to “tilt to green.”

Massive government spending, the likes of which we have seen already in many countries, will continue in the months ahead but should be used to pivot towards a low-carbon economy, the report says.

This could be achieved by making public funding and support conditional on firms committing to reduce their environment footprint.

Fiscal stimulus packages could also be directed towards climate action and sustainability so that green industries are the first to benefit from state subsidies.

As well as providing the scope for a green rethink to economic policy at the state level, the coronavirus crisis has revealed the extent to which our actions as individuals impact on the wider community.

By staying at home, washing our hands and keeping non-essential travel to a minimum, we have collectively prevented tens of thousands of deaths and stopped the NHS from being overwhelmed.

The power of individual action applies to climate change too. If we all strive to live in a sustainable way, then we will have a much better chance of limiting warming to two degrees above pre-industrial levels, pursuant to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

Coronavirus also demonstrates the interconnectedness of the world at large and reaffirms the importance of international cooperation.

The virus does not respect the borders separating nation states and it is not interested in the geo-political tensions that fuel so much conflict and disagreement year-on-year. It therefore cannot be defeated at the national level but only at the global level – just like climate change.

The pandemic invites us to think again about how small our differences truly are.

Let us hope that world leaders can come together to defeat this disease and then apply that same collaborative spirit to the environmental issue.

Because it is incredibly important that we do not fuel one existential crisis trying to get out of another.