Learning from coronavirus: Why 2020 matters for climate

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The decision to postpone COP26 until 2021 was a difficult but necessary one. Continuing to plan to bring many thousands of people together in Glasgow for two weeks in November, with a once-in-a-century global pandemic restricting travel and claiming thousands of lives every day, was simply impossible. 

The UK government was also facing an extremely tough task in mobilising the world’s other governments in time to reach a successful outcome in Glasgow given the unprecedented public health and economic emergencies they were, and are, facing. 

Parallel crises

Even talking about climate change at this point in the pandemic risks being seen as insensitive. Yet, it is vital that we do so for two reasons. First because the climate waits for no one – the impacts from continued warming (including on public health) will keep on growing along with the urgency to act. 

Second, because it is precisely in the midst of a global crisis, as we live and breathe the daily realities of dealing with a pandemic, that we are able to learn lessons to inform our response to the parallel global crisis – climate change. 

It is, of course, too early to draw definitive conclusions. But an initial assessment suggests the coronavirus pandemic can teach us a number of things:

  • the need for openness and transparency;
  • the importance of good data;
  • the speed with which people can change behaviours and industry re-purpose; 
  • the need to support individuals and businesses through economic transition; and 
  • the importance of global collaboration, underpinned by support for the world’s poorest countries to ensure the solution is permanent. 

For more on each of these lessons see the box below.

Other lessons will undoubtedly emerge. But perhaps the biggest lesson from the coronavirus pandemic is about anticipation. If it teaches us anything it is that we cannot afford to ignore science or expert judgement about the risks faced by our societies, or wait for problems to hit before acting. 

Responding to risk

Governments have long maintained risk registers and the risk of a global pandemic was on them – classified as low probability but potentially very high impact. We are all living with the consequences of individual government responses to this risk now. 

Climate change is both a high impact and high probability risk. Scientists have been issuing warnings with increasing confidence for 40 years about the impacts we would face from a heating planet brought about by human activities. The particular challenge with climate change, however, is that it is a slow-motion catastrophe – by the time the worst impacts are truly felt it will be too late. Moreover, in contrast with pandemics, its broader effects on society, our economies and our natural landscapes and ecosystems will likely be irreversible, at least for centuries or millennia. There will be no return in anyone’s lifetimes to the world as it was before. Which is why this year is so crucial. 

Increasing national ambition

Governments have a critical opportunity to acknowledge the risks that climate change poses and act rapidly to contain them. Under the Paris Agreement, governments must present updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) by the end of 2020 that are better aligned with what the science requires. The Paris Agreement is clear about what that means. By signing it, governments committed to strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change ’by holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels’.

It is widely estimated that current NDCs would only keep the global average temperature rise to about 3°C. The Paris Agreement itself notes that ‘much greater emission reduction efforts will be required’. 

However, initial signs are not encouraging. Japan and Switzerland have recently submitted NDCs that are largely unchanged. We cannot afford for other governments to follow suit. This is the year all governments need to increase the ambition of their national commitments aligned with what science tells us is required.

What’s at stake?

It’s worth reminding ourselves why limiting the temperature increase to 1.5°C is so important. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, our newspaper headlines were dominated by stories of record-breaking fires in Australia, cyclones in South East Asia and floods in the UK, bringing devastation to large numbers of people, destroying homes, livelihoods and wildlife on a terrifying scale. 

Global average temperatures have risen by about 1°C over pre-industrial levels and, while no single climate event can be attributed to climate change, we know that the likelihood of these events happening are significantly increased by it. Scientists have already concluded, for example, that climate change made Australia’s devastating fire season that damaged 18 million hectares at least 30% more likely. If these are the types of impact we are witnessing now from a 1°C warming, turning up the dial further will significantly increase the risks. 

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that even allowing global warming to rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels compared to 1.5°C would increase the number of people exposed to climate-related risks and susceptible to poverty by up to several hundred million by 2050.

That is what is at stake. To successfully limit the global average temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C over pre-industrial levels, the IPCC states that global man-made CO2 emissions will need to reduce by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching Net Zero by 2050. That will require rapid transitions on an unprecedented scale in energy, land, transport, building infrastructure and industrial systems, together with significant use of carbon dioxide removal (such as reforestation, soil carbon sequestration and direct air carbon capture and storage) – driven by a broad spectrum of mitigation policies and a huge increase in investment. 

Every year counts

We have 10 years to essentially halve global emissions. So, every year counts – none can be wasted in confronting this challenge – especially this one. 

Understandably, governments are focused on combatting the coronavirus pandemic, but the pandemic has shone a bright light on the importance of properly assessing and mitigating risk. 

Governments need to spare some bandwidth to increase the ambition of their national commitments on climate change and ensure that the vast public resources they are pouring into their economies will also support the need to halve global emissions in 10 years and help the planet reach Net Zero by 2050. 

Now is the time to ensure the proposed trillion-dollar bailouts are structured in ways that transform the sectors they’re saving, not propping up business as usual which will only serve to increase risks and costs. 

Now is also the time to develop a green Marshall Plan to ensure developing countries can do the same – for neither viruses, nor emissions, respect borders and unless every country acts, we will not have solved the problem.  

Crucially, coronavirus has demonstrated all too well that denial and delay are deadly. Let’s seize this opportunity to learn and act. 

Early lessons from the coronavirus pandemic for action on climate change

Openness and transparency

With Covid-19 we have witnessed the importance of communicating honestly and often about the progression of the disease and what is required of citizens and businesses. 

Governments will need to do much the same on climate change if they are to achieve the mobilisation of effort required across society. They also need to be transparent with each other about what they are doing to combat this common threat – actions need to be reported, monitored and verified. Businesses too need to be transparent with their investors and customers about the risks they are facing and their mitigating actions as well as the opportunities.

Reliable accessible data

Accessing data – on testing, tracking, and treatment for example – is critical to the global effort to manage the pandemic. Tackling climate change effectively also requires access to reliable data on emissions – at a country, company, household and even product level – in order to take informed decisions and prioritise effort.

Pace of change

Tackling climate change effectively requires huge shifts in how we produce and use energy, travel, eat and live our lives. Until now it was assumed that such shifts could only happen slowly. The pandemic has shown that this isn’t necessarily true. Some of the shifts – such as working from home and replacing international business travel with video-conferencing – have obvious climate benefits that could and should be sustained beyond the pandemic.

Meanwhile the rapid redeployment of manufacturing – away from making planes to ventilators or luxury clothes to hospital gowns – demonstrates the potential for carbon intensive industries to re-purpose rapidly too, re-deploying skills, for example, from offshore oil exploration to building offshore wind farms.

Transition support

Governments worldwide are providing trillions in financial support for businesses and individuals that are particularly impacted by the pandemic. The transition to a Net Zero economy will create huge opportunities and yet it will also have challenging implications for some industries. The current crisis highlights the importance of a just transition for exposed sectors so that the workforces they employ are supported through periods of change and emerge successfully.

Global collaboration 

Global coordination in response to the current global health crisis has been notable by its absence. Unless this changes and support is provided to the world’s poorest countries to act to contain it, the threat the virus poses will always be with us, no matter where we live. Climate change is no different. It is vital that governments take every opportunity to coordinate action and provide multilateral support for developing countries. Governments have made pledges in the past (such as the commitment to provide developing countries with $100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020). These must be honoured and global action stepped up.