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Parents and children hold handmade wind turbines outside Downing Street to call for a green economic recovery after the coronavirus pandemic in London, UK. Image Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Flattening the Curve: COVID-19 and the Climate Emergency

Although there is a long way to go before the true implications of the COVID-19 pandemic are known, the crisis does offer a rare opportunity for reflection on how to inform a better response to the other defining emergency of our times — climate change. 

Mo Ibrahim Foundation Academy Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources Programme

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Academy Fellow, Europe Programme

19 Aug 2020  •  8 min read

Mo Ibrahim Foundation Academy Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources Programme

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Academy Fellow, Europe Programme

Following a decade that was not kind to evidence-based dialogue in public discourse, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the limits of political spin. All across the world, public health experts and scientists have made themselves indispensable voices, cutting through the politics to provide painful but neccesary prescriptions on how to contain the spread of the virus. 

Even leaders whose very political existence relied on a tenuous relationship with scientific facts have come to realize they cannot keep their populations safe without good science. And COVID-19 has reinvigorated interest in public policy as the costs of inadequate health and social investment, political inaction and indeed inertia have been laid bare.  

The health crisis sweeping the globe has served as a force majeure for a remarkable liberation of political action from usual constraints such as deficit or inflation considerations, debt-creation concerns, or trepidations about market impact. The distance covered from where the world was at the start of the year to where it stands now in terms of resource mobilization and public investment is remarkable.

Resistance to action

COVID-19 has shown transformative public policy action is possible once it is deemed necessary. But think of how different the choices made might have been if considered in the context of the climate emergency. The science here too is incontrovertible as the destructive nature of breaching planetary boundaries by human-induced interference is clear. Yet the kind of transformative action needed for a climate-neutral future has been resisted for decades.

Comparing the two crises shows differences primarily in terms of the imminence and localization of danger. The risks of the climate emergency are projected over decades and experienced differently across geographies. Those living in the rural heartlands of the United States may feel climate change is less of a threat to them than those living on small Pacific islands whereas the pandemic posed a clear and present danger across the globe.

But these are differences of perception rather than substance. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has reported that humanity has — at best — a decade to avert catastrophe and yet, in a similar way to the global unpreparedness for COVID-19, the necessary trade-offs of urgent climate action are still considered as insurmountable political obstacles.

Socially distanced demonstrators from Fridays for Future demonstrate for more climate protection in many countries amid the coronavirus crisis. Because of the worldwide pandemic, the actions are taking place mainly on the Internet. Image: INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images

Dealing with the impact of the climate crisis at its peak — irreparably damaged systems and habitats, destroyed economies and exacerbated poverty and inequality — will cost far more than dealing with it today would. But at least there is hope that the stark experiences of today’s predicament will become a meaningful lesson for tomorrow.

Of course, the pandemic’s immediacy may push global efforts to deal with climate change out of public consciousness for the foreseeable future and the economic fallout related to it could disincentivize many countries from fundamentally reforming their economies and sticking to their commitments for global climate action. But the virus has — crucially — debunked many of the excuses as to why radical climate action cannot be implemented and serves as a powerful reminder of the need for global cooperation and collective action.

Moving beyond green tokenism

Making sure that the moment presented by COVID-19 is not missed will not be an easy task. Following the 2008 global financial crisis, green stimulus programmes by national governments were not the norm in responding to the challenges. The extensive economic contraction now being experienced across the world poses similar risks of prioritizing quick-fix solutions that fail to move beyond green tokenism to true holistic transition changes.

Many countries are struggling to stimulate growth and fulfil mounting debt obligations in the face of COVID-19 and unstable oil prices. Nigeria, for instance, is a long way from placing a green transition at the heart of its recovery process despite a national recovery plan which commendably includes the objective of installing solar home systems for five million households.

Similarly, many governments remain the highest purchaser of goods and services but have failed to introduce measures to green the procurement process as an integral lever for stimulating the economy. But making such changes will be increasingly important for the sustainability of their economies.

As recovery packages emerge around the world, this is why governments must mainstream a green logic in line with the Paris Agreement into their design and implementation. Even when support for carbon-intensive industries is deemed necessary, such support should be contingent upon strict and clear transition pathways.

The EU has so far shown its willingness to engage in this new direction with announcements concerning the centrality of the European Green Deal for the bloc’s recovery. The same level of ambition should be emulated elsewhere alongside an urgent need for multilateral climate finance institutions — such as the Green Climate Fund — to prioritise funding for the most vulnerable countries on the frontlines of COVID-19 and climate change.

The lesson the current crisis provides is simple. Foresight and preparedness make political sense. The unprecedented speed and scale of the pandemic may offer some cover for political leaders under pressure about the ineffectiveness of their responses but it is untenable to suggest the same for failing to tackle the climate emergency. 

The now well-known concept of ‘flattening the curve’ is just as relevant when considering the curve of pollution emissions responsible for climate disruption. As we are all now painfully aware, postponing difficult but necessary action not only exponentially raises the costs — economic and otherwise — of tackling a major crisis, it also endangers lives.