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Coronavirus is very different from the climate crisis but we can still learn from it


A blog by Professor Piers Forster, Director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds, with Dr Debbie Rosen, Science and Policy Manager for CONSTRAIN 

I’m a climate scientist not an epidemiologist, but like many of my colleagues, I’ve been reading the swiftly published papers coming from another community to try and make sense of the evolving pandemic.

The global research effort has been immense: the turn-around from data collection by medics on the ground, through complex computer modelling to publication has been truly impressive. Governments are paying closer attention to research than ever before, basing their responses on the evolving evidence and adapting health, economic and social distancing polices as we learn more.

On the other hand, we are witnessing how COVID-19, like climate change, is a threat multiplier, exacerbating existing problems. It is also clear, with hindsight that governments and international organisations were ill-prepared, and many warnings not heeded.

What learning can we take from this tragedy for the climate crisis, and how can we make sure that a more resilient world emerges on the other side?

Not just climate needs fixing

To build resilience, we need to address the climate crisis alongside other issues such as health, poverty, fairness, and governance, but national and international policies still largely target single issues.

Governments will need to shore up our global health system and encourage economic growth in the immediate aftermath of coronavirus, but policies must also get us on a path to net-zero: a world where fewer people are living with the devastating effects of storms, droughts or sea level rise will be better placed to tackle whatever is thrown at us, including future pandemics.

Here in the UK, our wonderful NHS realises this and has prioritised planning a net-zero pathway in the midst of its coronavirus response, by evaluating some of the changes it has made, and how they can sustain both CO2 reductions and a healthier population. For example, increasing online consultations can reduce exposure to infections, lower transport emissions and increase efficiency.

Fairness needs to be front and centre

Many families are already suffering as a result of coronavirus, through bereavement, financial pressures and a wide range of other factors. Like climate change, the virus is having the greatest impact on the most vulnerable, with poor health, economic and living conditions increasing the suffering.

Working together to minimise the societal impacts of coronavirus, for current and future generations, could become the blueprint for future transitions

There will also be intergenerational inequality: here in the UK, although our elderly relatives may be more at immediate risk, their grandchildren will be meeting the costs of economic and societal recovery, whilst also bearing the costs of climate impacts.

The economic fallout from coronavirus is meanwhile being felt across all sectors of the economy, with aviation being one of the most prominent. Many have welcomed the emissions reductions, and disappearance of contrails and noise pollution, but trade, tourism and livelihoods across the globe depend on aviation, as do many humanitarian efforts. Yes, it needs to get to net-zero, just like all other industries, but the transition needs to properly consider the services it provides and the livelihoods it benefits, particularly in developing nations, otherwise we will all be worse off.

There are vanishingly few examples of just transitions throughout history. Working together to minimise the societal impacts of coronavirus, for current and future generations, could become the blueprint for future transitions, including the one that gets us to net-zero.

Behaviour change is an important part but not the whole part

The virus response is a global case study in rapidly changing the habits of a lifetime: we clearly have the capacity to change behaviours in response to a global crisis, in a way that can deliver added benefits, if we have both strong motivation and clear instruction.

But it is not realistic to expect everyone to maintain these indefinitely for the greater good.  Some changes, such as more remote working will hopefully stick, especially if organisations adopt recovery plans that support net-zero. But although air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have dropped, in places by tens of percent, the measures to achieve this have been extreme.

Chinese air pollution is already bouncing back as demand for goods and services increase post-lockdown. So for net-zero, we need to combine behaviour change with structural change, including the introduction of new technologies such as carbon capture and removal, and transformed transport systems and home energy supply.

Planning for the worst is good insurance

The risks of a respiratory virus-driven pandemic were well known, but still caught the world on the back foot. With climate change we have an advantage in knowing what the impacts are, and where and when we can expect to see them. But being resilient requires investing in and planning adaptation solutions now to save both money and lives further down the road.

If the global effects of either coronavirus or climate change – or indeed both – take too much out of our economies, or we ignore potential threats, we will not be able to support the places and people that need it most. We are already firefighting coronavirus, due to a lack of preparedness. We need to ensure that this does not happen again, through strong, early and decisive action.

Climate research needs to learn from those that develop and implement policies, as well as those affected by them

Responsible scientists

As the world reels, scientists across many disciplines are seizing the opportunity to contribute to solving the crisis. At the University of Leeds’s Priestley Centre, we are looking at the behaviour changes and attitudes to work and travel that might help us on a path to a better future. We have a responsibility to make this research accessible to all, ensuring it gets to the people that need it most, and working with them on potential solutions.

Learning from frontline practitioners has really benefited the coronavirus response. Likewise, our climate research needs to learn from those that develop and implement policies, as well as those affected by them. This way, we can collectively make good evidence-based decisions to build a more climate-resilient world, as well as a more just society. Coronavirus has given us a learning experience we never wanted, let’s make sure we use it and #BuildBackBetter.


Main image: Cairo Skyline by Sebastian Horndasch

Republished with permission from Future Net Zero, where the original version of this article appeared