News and Articles

COVID-19 is a Harbinger of the Climate Crisis (Part II)

The iconic Matterhorn mountain illuminated with a message from Swiss light artist Gerry Hofstetter "as a sign of hope and solidarity" during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo Credit: Fabrice Coffrini / Getty Images
May 12, 2020

Eloïse O’Carroll is a London-based environmentalist and graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science and McGill University. Her main interests lie in the intersection of environmental policy and sustainable development. Eloïse was a 2018 Social Connectedness Fellow; during her Fellowship she examined the Royal Opera House Thurrock Community Chorus (ROHTCC) in England, to illustrate how the arts has the capacity to foster social connectedness and assisted in research for Human Rights Watch’s report, Unmet Needs, Improper Social Care Assessments for Older People in England

In this two-part series Eloïse examined the similarities between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate crisis (Part I) with this article focusing on recommendations for a socially and ecologically just recovery (Part II).

A Socially and Ecologically Just Recovery

It is vital that our economies bounce back in an environmentally and socially just way. We have already seen some remarkable efforts in the road to recovery. South Korea is the first East Asian nation to pledge to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Amsterdam is using the ingenuous Doughnut Economics framework to rebuild its economy post-pandemic and at least 17 EU countries are calling for the European Green Deal to be central to COVID-19 recovery. But more can and needs to be done, as the virus will continue to destroy already fragile societies and economies. We have a new window of opportunity here as the postponement of COP 26, a significant event in climate policy, could translate into greater environmental ambition.

Here are some suggestions to start with:

  1. Recovery plans must be consistent with the Paris agreement to limit global warming to 1.5-2˚C. This means investing in renewable energy, energy storage, (electric) public transport, nature-based solutions, energy efficiency in buildings, and more. This would lead to new jobs in a green and clean transition. In fact, low-carbon investments could save eight times more by 2050 than costs, once health and environmental externalities are included. Failing to restrict global temperature from increasing by more than 1.5˚C relative to the pre-industrial era could cost the economy more than $600 trillion USD by the end of the century. 
  1. Countries with fewer resources must be helped. First, wealthier countries could help African countries with “an immediate moratorium on bilateral and multilateral debt payments” as the President of France, Emmanuel Macron has suggested. Second, recovery packages for lower-income nations, which are more fragile to economic and health shocks due to fewer reserves and resources, could be coordinated through multilateral aid, via the UN and the G20. 
  1. Bailout packages should include green conditions. Polluting industries, such as the oil and gas sector, the automobile and aviation sectors, farming and petrochemicals are already receiving billions in bailouts whilst weakening environmental protection. This does not mean we need to continue on this path. Historically, low oil prices give us the opportunity to ramp up our climate ambition and instead spearhead investment in renewables. Taxpayers’ money must be “tied to achieving green jobs and sustainable growth,” said the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
  1. Abolish industrial interests (agriculture, fossil fuels, etc.) and end fossil fuel subsidies. Big Oil has already spent $1 billion USD in the three years after the historical climate Paris Agreement in 2015, attempting to weaken climate regulations, with certain degrees of success. 
  1. Polluters should pay for their pollution.
  1. Climate risks need to be factored into the financial system as shocks will increase. 
  1. Include women in decision-making processes. As Oxfam recently put it, “we need a feminist response to the pandemic” as “history has shown that gender inequality holds back progress on governance, peace, economic performance, food security, health, wellbeing, environmental protection and social progress.”

In conclusion, whilst the COVID-19 crisis bears similarities with the climate crisis, the latter is likely to be much more destructive over the long-term. New research shows that the world would be economically better off if every country strengthened climate commitments. Now is not the time to forget this and to roll back environmental protection. This crisis is a harbinger of what’s to come if we do not prepare.

Ultimately, the lessons learned from this virus will be shaped by the post-pandemic policies that governments choose. The stimulus packages that governments will put in place will dictate whether we manage to halve our carbon emissions to stay within 1.5˚C of global heating and meet the Sustainable Development Goals in the next 10 years.