“There’s no planet B!” Lately, you can see these words more and more on front pages of magazines and on the news. You can hear them from not just Greta Thunberg, but also from climate activists from across the world, who took to the streets every week, urging their governments to actively address climate change and save the planet. Australia and Siberia on fire, the anomalous heat wave of 2019, the snowless winter in Central Ukraine in 2020 had to push (or maybe even kick) the government into action.
But all of a sudden, the world is holding its breath. The global fight has started, but it is not against the climate change, but against the coronavirus infection taking over the entire world. The things that governments of developed countries used to consider impossible to do to keep climate change under control have suddenly become necessary: the economic activity has slowed down nearly in every country, there are fewer cars in the streets, urgent funds are being allocated to anti-crisis action, production facilities are adapting. Everything other than one’s health and survival have been pushed aside. These measures have actually led to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. But is it reason enough for joy? Does it mean that Greta Thunberg and climate activists can breathe a sign of relief? Let’s figure it out together.
What is the connection between the climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic?
An academic dictionary tells us that a crisis is a rapid change of the regular state of affairs, a turning point, a spike in the situation.
On March 11, the World Health Organisation announced a pandemic in connection with the spread of the coronavirus infection COVID-19. This not only changed our lives on an unprecedented scale, but also threatens a further global and national economic crisis. The UN estimates the possible losses for the global economy in trillions of US dollars. It is therefore hardly surprising that “the coronavirus” and “crisis” are words that often go hand in hand these days. Yet, certain analysts project a rapid recovery of the economic activity as the isolation gradually loosens.
Unlike the coronavirus, the climate crisis is slower and has even more aspects. The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in several months is just a drop compared to the ocean of excessive carbon that has already been accumulated in the atmosphere. The consequences of climate change can be dire, and their scope will depend on the actions (or inaction) of governments in the next decade. Even under the most optimistic scenario where we manage to keep global warming at 1.5°С, the economic damages from the sea level rise and flooding of coastal territories alone will constitute at least 10 trillion US dollars by the end of the century. That is not to mention heat waves, droughts, hurricanes and millions of climate refugees.
Swiss researcher François Gemenne calls climate change “an irrevocable transformation.” He says that there won’t be any vaccine against it, so there will be no going back to “normal life.” The question is at what stage we will be able to stop global warming together.
At first glance, it may seem that the situation with the coronavirus and climate change are completely unrelated phenomena. But in today’s globalised world, we are all in the same boat. Step by step, we can trace quite a few causative links and scenarios of further development.
During the past decades, the world has become highly interconnected. When something happens in any part of the world, the consequences can often be traced on the opposite end of the globe. That is precisely what happened with the new coronavirus, which took just a few months to spread across the globe, taking thousands of lives. It happens with climate change as well: coal burned in the US or in Ukraine affects global warming and local changes in various parts of the world: glacier melting in the Arctic, the loss of the Great Barrier Reef, water shortage in Yemen and hurricanes in the US.
The phenomenon of globalisation is a convenient mechanism for fostering international competition and reduction of food prices worldwide, on the one hand. On the other hand, it benefits developed industrialised countries first of all. The so-called Global South, which generally has poorer countries, gets the shorter end of the stick with its low wages, hard work conditions, limited options to fight against deadly viruses and high vulnerability to the consequences of climate change.
As the role of global economy grows, the world has switched from domination of governments to domination of markets since the ‘80s. The governments had to step back and interfere only in the most difficult situations, while businesses were supposed to lead the way and generate capital. But the events of the recent years have been nothing short of eye-opening when it comes to the shortcomings of the capitalist society.
It turned out that the governments were not ready to respond to crises. In many countries, expenditures for critically important institutions providing critical social care were systemically reduced. Underfunding of healthcare both in Ukraine and in countries like the US or the UK led to insufficient capacity of these healthcare systems and the current hardships connected with the pandemic. The governments’ response to climate change has also been too week: the market and private companies continue to dictate their rights, and the environment is fighting a losing battle against the industry of dirty fossil fuels. Since 1988, just 100 companies in the world are responsible for over 70% of greenhouse gas emissions.
Those who are relatively poor — both countries and individuals — are more vulnerable and less resilient during crises: the economic crisis, climate change or a pandemic. Still, in any country, be it more or less developed economically, you can single out the groups that are especially vulnerable.
These groups are the elderly, people with chronic diseases, people with immune disorders, with disabilities, women and children. Poverty becomes one of the main factors affecting the level of risk.
Inequality becomes especially start now that we know that the coronavirus is a risk primarily to the elderly, now that we see people previously working in low-paid jobs lose their only source of income during the quarantine and that the “frontline” is defended by doctors and other healthcare professionals along with shop assistants, with the majority of them being women, who now have to come in contact with numerous people without sufficient protection but cannot stop going to work without risking to have no means of survival. Another group vulnerable to the virus is people with preexisting chronic respiratory diseases, which are overwhelmingly caused by air polluted by fossil fuel burning. At least 4% of the population of Ukraine suffer from those conditions.
The consequences of climate change, too, target the most vulnerable people. The anomalous heat is the hardest on the elderly, people with heart diseases, pregnant women, and children. In extreme weather conditions and when there is a need for evacuation, it is the elderly and people with disabilities who cannot move fast enough. The population groups with low mobility include also people who care for somebody else, with the majority of this group consisting of women. It is harder for the poor to start over in a new place due to a lack of initial resources. These are just some examples, and they are not just theoretical; they are reflected in reality every year.
What can we learn from the coronavirus situation to tackle climate change?
Solidarity and joint action
“This is, above all, a human crisis that calls for solidarity. This is a moment that demands coordinated, decisive, and innovative policy action from the world’s leading economies. We must recognize that the poorest countries and most vulnerable — especially women — will be the hardest hit,” says UN Secretary General António Guterres in his statement.
The statement is about the coronavirus crisis, but these words reflect the situation in the international climate policy just as well. Thus, the coronavirus and climate change are crises which may help the humankind to coordinate the efforts. The primary task of governments right now is the emergency in the healthcare sector. Even so, after the pandemic, countries will have to think about the social and economic consequences, plan and implement measures to restore the global and national economies. These measures will define whether the humanity will finally turn to the path of sustainable development.
For instance, according to the data of the International Energy Agency (IEA), governments directly or indirectly affect 70% of global investments into energy. G20 countries currently invest four times as much money into fossil fuel energy as into renewable energy. This means that there is an option for divestments — redirection of investments in the right direction. The IEA recommends the governments to consider the benefits of renewable energy when they develop the economic stimulus packages after the pandemic: economic growth, creation of new jobs, but also reduction of emissions, better air quality, increased independence of energy carrier import and support of innovation. Countries can mobilise and manifest their political will to resolve climate change just as they are now doing to combat the virus.
Change in behaviour
In most countries which are on a lockdown or practice social distancing, it took just a couple of weeks for the population to start taking the government’s urges to stay at home, wash hands and keep a distance from other people seriously. Watching the statistics of contagion and deaths every day, we realize how high the risks are. It is about saving our own lives and the lives of our loved ones. We are prepared to give up a lot of things, including financial benefits, by changing our lifestyle.
Unlike the coronavirus, climate change is a cumulative phenomenon. Its consequences may be barely noticeable and slow to manifest themselves. In addition, we tend not to think about the impact of our specific actions on climate change. Does it really matter if we go to work by car or by metro? As a result, we are not really ready to change our behaviour even if the common good depends on it: the future of the next generations, snowy winters, entire ecosystems. We think of this distant future as something completely removed from the present, but that’s not true. The coronavirus has killed about 70,000 people in three months. As much as we feel for everyone who has encountered the disease or lost somebody to it, we should not forget about the 7,000,000 people who die from diseases related to air pollution every year, according to the WHO. The majority of these deaths happen in low-income countries, which highlights the link with social justice. Ukraine is actually the anti-leader of the country ranking based on the number of pollution-caused deaths to total population.
Even though the consequences of climate change seem vague and distant, researchers are unequivocal in their conviction: the humankind has only a decade left (until 2030) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions dramatically and maintain the global warming at the relatively handleable level of 1.5°С. An important factor here is a change in our lifestyle. The situation with the coronavirus shows that it is possible. We can be serious about efficient use of energy resources as much as we can be particular about washing hands regularly. What can change our attitude is accurate information and the right motivation.
Evidently, the media worldwide are very active in their coverage of the situation with the coronavirus. The governments have started providing regular updates on the latest events, the newest facts and figures, even though it often happens with a certain delay. This timely, high-quality information is what has helped the population to understand the real danger of the virus and how to save themselves and their loved ones.
While the climate crisis has become more common in the media in the recent years, it is nowhere near mainstream. The reason, again, is that the consequences of climate change are more spread over time, so the media are less interested in the “distant” year 2030 or 2050. Yet, it is important to remember that the coronavirus does not somehow cancel climate change. Both phenomena are dangerous and need to be discussed. If popular media dedicated to climate change at least one fifth of the time they dedicate to the coronavirus, the population would have much more information to start changing its habits now.
Consequences of the pandemic for the climate
The coronavirus pandemic has led to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, less polluted air in industrial cities and even new climate-friendly habits (work from home, virtual work meetings, etc.). But these changes are too fragile, and their price is too high: thousands of human lives, a healthcare crisis and economic recession, affecting the vulnerable groups before all. Any positive environmental changes that we are observing today will be hard to maintain if governments do not take adequate action in the future.
Economic restoration stimuli which countries define as priorities in the near future can either serve as an impetus for sustainable development or cause a major setback. A “climate setback” is a real threat today, and we already have negative experience in history illustrating it. After the global financial crisis of 2008–2009, greenhouse gas emissions grew rapidly as a result of stimuli supporting the use of fossil fuels.
Historic (1960–2010) CO2 emissions from burning of fossil fuels and international crises (oil crises of 1973 and 1979, breakdown of the USSR in 1991, the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the global financial crisis of 2008).
Source: Nature Climate Change
Historic (1990–2019) and projected (2020) CO2 emissions from burning of fossil fuels.
Source: Breakthrough Institute
Instead, governments now have a unique change to restructure the economy, starting a new page. Multiple data corroborate that the support of low-carbon development is the best way to receive long-term economic and social benefits. Bold action in the face of climate change can lead to global economic achievements of over USD 25 trillion by 2030. They include “green” jobs, the development of clean and modern technologies, energy efficient processes, comfortable houses and infrastructure. Ambitious climate policy offers clear benefits to countries which want to strengthen their economy during turbulent times and want to achieve long-term sustainable development.
Which path will Ukraine choose?
Anna Akermann, member of the board of Centre for Environmental Initiatives “EcoAction”.
Oksana Alieva, coordinator of the program “Climate Change and Energy Policy,” Heinrich Boell Foundation, Kyiv Office — Ukraine.