Authorship: Dr Britta Rennkamp & Lina Audehm
The COVID-19 pandemic has quickly led to unprecedented global action to contain the spread of the disease. These drastic measures of reducing human contact impede large parts of economic activity and transport. The measures lead to temporary emissions reductions in the short term, but they come at a high cost in terms of economic activity. What is more, temporary reductions may bounce back at a later stage of the crisis.
The pandemic resembles a global crisis, which requires urgent collective action to protect human life. Will this pandemic bring the global temperature goal of maintaining global warming ‘well below 2°C’ back into reach? What can we learn from this imposed pause on our business as usual in terms of collective climate action?
1. We have to learn to focus on what’s essential for human survival
The work of medical workers treating those who are sick, and the work of those who supply us with food, electricity, water and pharmaceutics are considered essential for temporary human survival.
The non-essential workers, including ourselves, stay at home and worry about the supply of their own essentials: food supply and the sustainability of their livelihoods in the future. While some distract themselves in global online communities, baking home-made bread, or growing own vegetables in their lush gardens; others suffer from attacks by other household members or corrupt police, wishing for the lock down to come to an end quickly.
No matter what reality we are currently going through under these circumstances: In essence, this crisis shows us clearly that we are an organic and vulnerable species. A tiny virus, invisible to the human eye, can force us clever humans to stop all our non-essential actions. We are not safe, human existence on this planet is not granted. We need each other to ensure we can survive as a species. We should use this time to ask ourselves what is essential for human survival in the long-term.
2. Human behavioural change is possible and can be quick
In no time at all, many of us have learned to sanitise, to wear masks and to keep a distance from other humans. Within a few weeks the coronavirus has already sustainably transformed our habits.
Some of the habits adopted under the social distancing rules under the coronavirus pandemic are useful actions to mitigate climate change: we have learned to work more effectively online, we can save significant fuel on non-essential travel and office commuting in the future, as well.
3. Public policy can succeed when the science-policy interface works
Where the science of epidemiology has been acknowledged, leaders have taken quick action to contain the virus. Where this hasn’t happened, responses have been lagging and made the crisis worse. There are blunt parallels between the denialist responses to the coronavirus and climate change crises by leaders such as the Presidents Jaír Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the US.
The good news, overall, is that we now know that political leaders will take action to ensure human survival, and this action will take on different shapes depending on national circumstances. This action, however, is largely reactive and rarely forward looking. It may come too late.
Understanding the link between the spread of infectious diseases and a warming climate, however, is an urgent task to move on the political agendas for the restructuring of measure for economic recovery from COVID-19 losses.
4. Free-riders undermine collective action, but they can be contained
In the literature on collective action, free-riders are the main threat to collective action and they will always exist. Free-riders under the pandemic put themselves and others at risk and are therefore more likely to catch the disease. Free riders in the climate action arena go largely unpenalised today, but may suffer from climate change impacts in the future.
The experience from the lock down actions under the coronavirus pandemic shows very clearly that the impact of free-riders can be outweighed by a majority of those who comply. Containing free-riders, again, will rely on impactful climate policy and behavioural change of individual citizens.
5. Exacerbating existing social inequalities: the poor will suffer the most and will need help both urgently and in the long-term
Increasing hygiene levels, sanitizing and social distancing is possible if one has access to resources, environments and living conditions that allow practicing protective measures. Similar to climate change, the poorer communities are likely to suffer most from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. Almost a quarter of the world’s population live in slums, without reliable infrastructure, sanitation or enough space to practice social distancing and frequent washing routines.
The majority of people who live in precarious human settlements are in Africa, South America and Asia. So far, the death toll of the coronavirus on the African continent is limited, compared to those of past pandemics. Societies on the continent are resilient, with medical staff working in collapsing health sectors during past epidemics.
African societies are comparatively young, which may make them more resilient to the impacts of COVID-19 infections. However, there are still numerous vulnerable populations suffering from chronic conditions and limitations in terms of health infrastructure. Potential benefits of the BCG vaccine against tuberculosis and the Anti-retroviral treatments used to treat HIV are yet to be confirmed when it comes to reducing the impacts of COVID-19 infections. Overall, there is a human tragedy in the making amongst the poorer communities, alongside the challenges of climate impacts. These dynamics will require not just public action, but also civil action in solidarity from higher income groups.
6. Geopolitical change: China on the lead while US hegemony is crumbling?
The changing geopolitical balance of power under the coronavirus pandemic may have implications for future climate action for the better or for the worse. The pandemic has given the Chinese government an opportunity to engage in global leadership, despite initial attempts in covering up the health crisis in its early beginnings. At the same time, Donald Trump’s response through the COVID-19 epidemic is undermining the remainders of US hegemony in the international system, both in leadership and expertise.
The Chinese government has attended requests for assistance for personal protective equipment, in Italy, South Africa and other African nations. Chinese businessmen made donations, which featured in the South African presidential speech on COVID-19. These actions are not without contestation, but may underpin Chinese soft power, noticeably on the African continent.
7. Business as usual or an opportunity to change towards green economic practices and pathways?
The nature of the economic revival measures that will be used to overcome the global recession will result in one or another emissions pathway. We may go back to revitalising battling industries at the expense of climate action and eroding progress on emissions reductions.
The Chinese and South African governments lifted emissions limits that benefit local polluting industries. Chinese coal plants and infrastructural projects including the road and belt initiative focus on building large infrastructure projects with plans for 32 new coal fired power plants on the continent.
The Paris Agreement may well become a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic, if nations choose to revive their economies with traditional measures that promote fossil fuel based industries. The UNFCCC chose to postpone the important COP 26, which required the world’s nations to submit the next rounds of its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) for the implementation of the Paris Agreement. These submissions were supposed to indicate the contributions of the world’s nations to flattening the curve of global emissions in the next five years to meet the global temperature goal.
8. There is an opportunity for change in every crisis
Whether this opportunity will be used to flatten emissions, depends on leaders and citizens and their ability to think beyond this crisis and conceive what needs to be done to avoid the future climate crisis. Bruno Latour’s ‘little exercise to make sure that, after the virus crisis, things don’t start again as they were before’ should be on every political agenda, on every CEO’s desk and on all our kitchen tables.
We cannot solve problems with the same thinking that created them. Take this crisis seriously as an opportunity to avoid the next one.
Britta Rennkamp is a senior researcher, Lina Audehm is a volunteer at the ACDI