OPINION: the converging crises of COVID-19 and climate change

We must see the COVID-19 public health crisis as lesson in how address climate change quickly and cooperatively

Share

GEF Blue Forests_covid-19 climate

The conservation of coastal wetlands, including mangroves, is critical to mitigating climate change because these ecosystems capture and store carbon - or what that scientists call 'blue carbon'. Photo: GEF Blue Forests / Climate Visuals.

The situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is a global test of what we will experience in 2030, a year scientists have long warned will present a critical junture by which time we must rein in catastrophic climate change.

In the midst of uncertainty and an economic and social recession - a physical and mental health crisis and unravelling of the social fabric - we can already see that if we follow the path of development that brought us to this year, the sudden mandatory quarantine we are experiencing will not be the last in the 21st century.

In the words of Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): “At this time, with the crises converging, we have to agree on solutions and optimise resources, policies and efforts simultaneously.”

This public health crisis must be seen as an opportunity to learn how to quickly address climate change, the greatest environmental challenge we have faced as humans.

The moment we are living in demonstrates that complex actions can be achieved in a short time

The COVID-19 pandemic and the fight against the adverse effects of anthropogenic climate change have several aspects in common:

i) They impact all sectors, at all levels, and every aspect of social and economic life;

ii) They are a common enemy for all countries worldwide;

iii) They attack all people regardless of sex, race, age, but hit vulnerable individuals and groups hardest;

iv) They remind us of the profound importance of scientific debate;

v) The solutions are in the hands of all those affected;

vi) And they count on the guidance of an international organisation, be it the World Health Organization (WHO) or UNFCCC, frameworks that support and guide decision-making nationally.

At the same time there are differences. The virus necessitated radical and urgent economic measures, which countries had been reluctant to implement for years, and which, paradoxically, international treaties on climate change had highlighted since 1992. These include the reduction of emissions caused by industrialisation, and more sustainable production and consumption.

The COVID-19 pandemic is already having an effect on climate action because, four months after the first infected person was diagnosed, the UN-organised COP26 climate summit scheduled for 2020 has had to be postponed.

Under the Paris Agreement, this year was supposed to see countries start to update their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – plans to mitigate national emissions and outline broader greenhouse gas reduction targets. They also set out actions to be taken for adapting to the impacts of climate change.

This public health crisis must be seen as an opportunity to learn how to quickly address climate change, the greatest environmental challenge we have faced as humans.

The serious economic recession, which Latin America (now not expected to grow until 2025) and the rest of the world face after the pandemic, may be an excuse for countries to lower their ambitions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in updated NDCs. There are concerns countries could focus financial recovery strategies on the extraction of hydrocarbons and minerals.

There are also some additional adverse impacts of the virus on the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development related to climate change that must be monitored.

The COVID-19 pandemic is becoming an obstacle to countries’ compliance with their NDCs, as many may choose to focus efforts and resources on the public health challenge, ignoring the logic of moving forward simultaneously on all fronts, including the environmental one.

Yet this could create a “bottleneck” for the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 13 on climate action and, consequently, of other directly associated SDGs, such as SDG 7 on affordable and clean energy; SDG 11 on sustainable cities and communities, and SDG 12 on responsible production and consumption.

The moment we are living in demonstrates that complex actions can be achieved in a short time: mobilising resources, coordinating efforts, making institutional arrangements and building infrastructure.

What cannot happen is to allow the economic recovery to give way to designing less ambitious climate policies or giving environmental protection too much flexibility.