COVID-19: 3 Lessons for Climate Change

April 9, 2020

It’s a crazy world now. Flights and hotels are half empty. Sports arenas are being turned into field hospitals. Toilet paper is being hoarded as if worth its weight in gold.

The current pandemic is an unprecedented global crisis. And yet, one unlikely beneficiary has emerged amidst the slowdown caused by COVID-19—our planet. As countries have implemented lockdowns and physical distancing measures, reports have been surfacing of cleaner air and less pollution. In China, carbon emissions fell by 25 per cent in February compared to the same period in 2019, according to a report by Carbon Brief. Air pollution has decreased in Italy and in Malaysia, where the percentage of stations which recorded “good” air quality readings increased twofold from 28% to 57% after a Movement Control Order (MCO)—restricting movement through a partial lockdown—was enforced. 

How we respond to COVID-19 may offer us lessons for another crisis which is already looming before us—the climate crisis. This blog presents three ideas: (a) flattening the climate curve, (b) an opportunity for behavioural change, and (c) staying within planetary boundaries. 

Flattening the climate curve

One of the most important things we have learnt so far is that urgent, decisive action can turn a crisis around. South Korea is a good example of this. Soon after confirming its first COVID-19 cases, the country passed a government reform allowing local manufacturers to produce tests based on WHO specifications, enabling the country to test hundreds of thousands of people. Likewise, Singapore has also been able to “flatten the curve,” or slow the rate of infections, using a combination of aggressive contact tracing and strong healthcare system. These countries show that quick decisions to contain the spread of the coronavirus can save lives.

Long before COVID-19, the world has been facing the challenge of flattening the greenhouse gas emissions curve. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the world’s leading body of climate experts—has warned that we have only 10 years left to keep global temperature rise to a maximum of 1.5oC, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risk of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. At our current rate, global temperatures are on course to reach a temperature rise of at least 3oC by the end of the century, signalling irreversible environmental catastrophe.

Photo credit: NY Times adaptation from CDC/Economist; Sustainable Fashion Forum

Just as implementing swift protective measures can slow down the emergence of positive COVID-19 cases and keep society within the healthcare system capacity (left), similarly, prioritising sustainability measures can reduce climate risks and keep us within the earth’s capacity (right).

Societies can shift behaviour

While global carbon emissions are likely to fall this year as a result of COVID-19’s impact on economic activity and transport, this decrease is temporary and emissions are expected to rebound when economic activity recovers—unless we take decisive action to change business as usual.

For starters, the coronavirus outbreak has triggered the world’s largest experiment on remote working. Businesses and organisations are investing resources into systems for remote working, including taking meetings and conferences online.

UNDP has purchased a universal subscription to Zoom—some of our colleagues have even dialled in from outer space! Photo: Benjamin/UNDP Malaysia

Many employees and employers are already growing accustomed to this way of working and forming new habits, especially as they start to recognise the benefits of flexible work arrangements. Beyond the pandemic, we have an opportunity to re-evaluate the necessity for business travel. That four-hour flight to attend a business meeting? That could easily be replaced by a Zoom call, which will also help to reduce our carbon footprint. Should at least some of these work habits persist beyond the crisis, we will see lasting impact on carbon emissions, especially in the transport sector.

Across the world, cars have been taken off the road and airplanes have been taken out of the atmosphere. Photo: Benjamin/UNDP Malaysia

COVID-19 has changed the way we work and live in a matter of weeks. Will this new working trend persist in the long run? Working from home is enabled by the Internet and digital tools, but it also comes with distractions in the form of household responsibilities and family care obligations. To this end, UNDP in Malaysia will be conducting a study on the effects of telecommuting during the MCO. What we learn in the next few months could shape a new future of work built on new modes of communication and connectivity.

Stay within the planet’s limits

This pandemic is a wake-up call to stay within our planet’s limits. Over the last two decades, experts have been warning that biodiversity loss and the disruption of ecosystems can create conditions for new viruses and diseases to emerge. Global temperature rise alters the timing, geography and intensity of disease around the world, and could help to facilitate the rise of new disease outbreaks like COVID-19.

The earth is a living organism, responding to signals and input much like the human body; now, it seems the planet is telling us to rest. It is high time to rethink industry and economic activity, moving away from the old paradigm of growth without limits. The signs of our planet healing while human activity comes to a standstill is a stark reminder of the tremendous impact humans have on our natural world: industries such as aviation take a huge toll on our planet’s carrying capacity and have contributed to accelerating the spread of the virus in our increasingly globalised and interconnected world.

If present trends in industrialisation, population growth and resource depletion continue unchanged, and if we do not respect the limits of our planet, then we are setting ourselves up for disaster. Notably, the food security and supply chain disruptions that we are facing now, are also likely scenarios in a climate emergency. On a more positive note, this interruption of business has turned the attention of food producers to communities in need closer to home, inspired an e-commerce giant to develop an online platform for local farmers and brought to light alternative delivery channels to keep supply chains moving.

From political leaders and businesses, to civil society and local communities—we all need to respond to the climate crisis with the same bold resolve, putting in place policies and regulations to reduce our carbon footprint, braving behavioural shifts, and establishing socio-economic safety nets for the most vulnerable.

The Chinese have given us wisdom for the situation in which we find ourselves. The Chinese word for crisis (wéi jī, 危机) comprises characters present in the words for dangerous (wéi xiǎn, 危险) and opportunity (jī huì, 机会). In every crisis, there are opportunities.

We can embrace the current coronavirus crisis as an inflection point, as a moment of reflection to shift the world in the changes it so desperately needs. To embrace growth that respects the planet’s limits, and to start committing to urgent climate action.