TDL Brief: COVID and the Climate

As the global climate situation becomes increasingly urgent, the movement against climate change has gained more and more traction. Despite the protests, the conferences, and the new policies, many are frustrated by the slow progress that is being made. 

In early 2020, the world was struck by a pandemic that brought daily life to a screeching halt. Among all the tragedy and the trauma brought on by COVID-19, many people found themselves searching for a silver lining. 

It is probably safe to say that we can all agree that the coronavirus pandemic has impacted nearly every facet of our lives. It has left nothing untouched – including the environment. The silver lining that so many were looking for was the realization that one of the many consequences of the pandemic might just be a reversal of some of the effects of climate change. The hope was that, with far fewer people travelling and less factories up and running, we could prove that the damage we caused could be undone. Then, that evidence could be used to push for lasting change. Perhaps it would not be so bad if life after the pandemic did not look exactly as it did before.

Although this bright spot in the pandemic certainly has value, there are many who look at it from a less optimistic perspective. They raise questions like “is the change we are seeing significant” and, if so, “is there any feasible way to make it last?”. These questions are too big to have just one easy answer; even experts are in disagreement about them. In spite of the uncertainty, perhaps this could still be used as a way to bring about change in a post-COVID world.

1. Present bias

By: Peter Masone, “Why did we mobilise for COVID-19 and not climate change?”, London School of Economics and Political Science, May 2020

It is undeniable that COVID-19 and climate change are both global crises that call for swift action. That being said, the way the world responded to the pandemic is strikingly different from our response to climate change. We adapted quickly to COVID-19. Policies were put in place to slow the spread, and we began wearing masks and limiting our contact with others. The pandemic called upon us to make unexpected sacrifices and completely turned our lives upside down. For the most part, people have complied with the public health measures and are doing their part to “flatten the curve”. Climate change, on the other hand, has not been received with nearly the same level of urgency and the actions taken to mitigate the effects of global warming have been minimal, at best. 

COVID-19 and climate change are both international crises that have serious implications for our future. While lifestyle changes at an individual level can be beneficial, they both require political action be taken against them, in order for real progress to be observed. The situations are similar, so why are our governments’ responses to them so drastically different? 

This discrepancy can be explained, in part, by a cognitive bias known as “present bias”. Present bias describes how we tend to value immediate payoff over future rewards, even if that future reward is substantially greater than the immediate one. The COVID-19 pandemic feels real and scary. It has created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty, which has motivated us to act quickly to quell those anxieties. Furthermore, with the pandemic there is the feeling that if we all do our part to slow the spread there is a reward waiting for us in the near future. Namely, the end of the pandemic and the chance to get back into our old routines. Climate change, on the other hand, is a distant, abstract concept. Its effects can be observed but they do not always have a significant effect on people’s daily lives. We do not feel its effects immediately, so it does not incite the same level of fear within the population. Beyond that, we would have to make a lot of changes and sacrifices in order to undo the damage we have inflicted upon the planet. The payoff to ending the climate crisis would be extraordinary but, since we feel so disconnected from the issue and achieving that end goal would take many years, we do not feel the same incentive to act against climate change like we do for the COVID-19 pandemic.

2. Going green in global COVID recovery

By: “‘Green recovery’ from COVID-19 can slow climate change: UN environment report”, UN News, December 2020

Although we saw a small dip in global carbon emissions during the early stages of the pandemic, when the world was put on hold, we are still on track to boost global temperatures by 3 degrees Celsius in this century. That does not sound like much, but if it were to happen, the consequences would be devastating. However, the UN urges us not to lose hope, nor to give up the fight for a greener tomorrow. The UN Environment Programme executive director, Inger Anderson, announced that a “green recovery” from the COVID-19 pandemic might be enough to slow the rate of climate change, and pushed governments worldwide to allocate money to this initiative, while also making climate change a priority for 2021.

The report offers suggestions for changes on the large-scale, such as dedicating resources to reforestation of exploited lands, prioritizing zero-emissions technologies, and decreasing fossil fuel subsidies. Furthermore, due to the high demand from consumers, it has become clear that shipping and aviation technologies can no longer operate as they are. They must move away from fossil fuels and towards greener sources of energy, in order to decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

Recommendations are also made for changes we can all make in our daily lives. Take the train instead of booking a seat on a short domestic flight. Carpool to work or, even better, take up cycling. Make a concerted effort to limit food waste and to make your home more energy efficient. These small efforts add up to big changes. 

As we come out of this pandemic, we cannot simply go back to the same lives we were living before. While we recover from the toll COVID took on us, let us help the planet recover from the toll we have taken on it.

3. Public health

By: “Climate and COVID-19: Converging crises”, The Lancet, December 2020

COVID-19 has taken news headlines by storm and at the forefront of almost everyone’s minds. This is understandable, considering the scope of the issue, however we cannot let our attention be redirected away from other global issues entirely, especially not ones like climate change, which is not only a pressing issue, but one that is inextricably linked to the pandemic.

Research has shown that health and the climate go hand-in-hand. For example, air pollution is linked to asthma, food insecurity can result in poor diets, and the heat can pose a risk to the elderly. There are commonalities between the pandemic and the climate crises. Both have led to countless preventable deaths and both are spreading resources in healthcare thin. Furthermore, the same factors that drive climate change contribute to the propagation of diseases like coronavirus. Two major examples are international travel and urbanization, which has resulted in high density populations in cities. Another striking similarity between coronavirus and climate change is that they both disproportionately affect marginalized communities. 

The emergence of COVID-19 vaccines has been the light at the end of this very, very long tunnel. That being said, the public health crisis will not end with this pandemic. Governments are focusing on policies to bolster economic recovery from COVID-19, but they also need to be pushing policies to encourage a green recovery, because climate change is a public health crisis in its own right.

4. Nice try, but no cigar

By: Matt McGrath, “UN report: Covid crisis does little to slow climate change”, BBC News, September 2020

In the early days of the pandemic, the bright spot in the darkness for many was the possibility that carbon emissions might be dropping enough to slow climate change. Unfortunately, a report from the United Nations suggests that the reductions were too minimal to have any real impact.

There is no arguing the fact that lockdown measures had an immediate effect on greenhouse gas emissions. In April 2020, the daily levels were 17% lower than they were in April 2019. It is possible that this level of reduction may have been enough to make a difference. Unfortunately, it was not maintained for very long. By June, daily greenhouse gas emissions were only 5% lower than they had been in the previous year. Even with the drop in greenhouse gas emissions on the ground, levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continue to increase and we are still on track for 2016-2020 to be the hottest five-year period on record. That is not the kind of record-breaking feat that garners much celebration.

One poignant statement from this report is that, in order to effectively combat global warming, a “pandemic-sized” reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be required every year until 2030. Recall that this drop in greenhouse gas emissions resulted from a global lockdown. The level of change needed to reverse the effects of climate change is quite significant. In order to make the changes necessary and to heal the damage we have inflicted on the planet, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, announced that we must emerge from the pandemic ready to take on the climate crisis and achieve sustainable development, which can only be accomplished through “science, solidarity, and solutions”. 

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