A tale of two crises

A tale of two crises

The past weeks have seen the world rapidly enter crisis mode. Slow to react at first, governments around the globe have now taken measures unprecedented in peacetime to control the spread of the novel coronavirus. Businesses and schools have been shut, citizens confined to their homes, private hospitals (temporarily) nationalized,[1] car manufacturers ordered to produce ventilators for hospitals.[2]

The reaction is remarkable for its scale and speed, but also for how readily businesses and the public have accepted such far-reaching restrictions to their activities and lives. A few grumbles notwithstanding, by and large we have rightly accepted these restrictions as crisis measures necessary to save millions of lives.

The monster in the shadows

While all eyes are now focused on the ugly, virus-shaped beast stood squarely before us, a bigger, more vicious animal lurks behind. The climate crisis, already upon us, is impacting lives and ecosystems at an accelerating rate. Natural disasters are becoming worse and more frequent, changing weather patterns are causing crops to fail and rivers to run dry, and infectious disease patters are beginning to change.[3] 

Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is predicted to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress, with air pollution causing many more.[4] Even if governments meet current climate pledges, we would still be headed for 2-4.9°C of warming by the end of this century, jeopardising lives and livelihoods of millions of people along the way. Scientists have estimated that warming at the upper end of this range could, in fact, threaten the very existence of the human race.[5]

What to do when faced with two global crises of such monstrous proportions at once? Is it logical to focus all available resources on combating the beast before us when a much more serious danger looms over humanity? In the short term, yes – the first beast will devour us if we do not act promptly. Decisions to cancel climate meeting, events, and demonstrations scheduled for the coming months – or to move them online – are therefore beyond question. 

However, in our battle against the coronavirus we should not ignore the other beast, which if not controlled will inevitably devour us all eventually. There is a real risk that the corona crisis sucks up all our energy and political will and that – desperate for social and economic normalcy – we revert straight back to business-as-usual. 

Opportunists, meanwhile, are using the corona crisis to sabotage climate action in the name of protecting the economy. The Trump administration has already suspended enforcement of US environmental laws, giving a boost to polluting industries,[6] while here in Europe the Czech prime minister has called for the Green Deal to be scrapped in the face of the coronavirus.[7]

This is a road we cannot afford to tread. We must learn from the mistakes of the financial crisis, which led to failed climate negotiations, stagnating carbon markets, and unmet climate finance pledges. Time is no longer on our side.

One stone to kill two birds?

Winston Churchill – a man of questionable politics but excellent quotes – said to never waste a good crisis. Just as we use reconstruction after an earthquake to rethink foundations and building structures, we should use the stimulus the world economy will need to recover from the corona crisis and the subsequent recession to build a resilient, low-carbon society. 

The last global crisis – the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession – enabled at least some governments to reign in and better regulate the financial industry. These regulations are bearing fruit now, as our global banking sector is in a much better shape to deal with the economic fall-out caused by the coronavirus than it was just over a decade ago. 

Twelve years later, countries like the USA, Germany and the UK have already pledged fiscal stimulus that exceeds the amounts extended during the last financial crisis,[8] offering economic support packages to help citizens and businesses affected by COVID-19. More long-term economic stimulus packages to keep businesses afloat will likely emerge in the coming weeks and months, with the ultimate aim of limiting economic pain and returning to business-as-usual as soon as possible. 

It is clear that massive financial relief packages needed immediately must be formulated so as to facilitate quick adoption by parliaments. However, longer-term stimulus should not only seek to fix the post-COVID-19 economy, but to stop runaway climate change at this vital moment. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has rightly called on governments to adopt “sustainable stimulus packages” to scale-up climate action,[9] while others have called for a Global Green New Deal to address the climate and corona crises all at once.[10] At the heart of such green stimulus schemes would be financial incentives aimed at supporting climate-friendly economic activities, including tax rebates and exemptions, concessional loans, and targeted grants. Governments could also require companies that receive public support to agree to develop decarbonization plans or pay for the carbon they emit, as US Democrats have proposed.[11]

Crisis as a teacher

The response to the corona crisis can teach us a thing or two about how to act in times of emergency. The past weeks have shown that governments are capable of quick and far-reaching action to combat a serious threat, even at a time when science does not yet have all the answers and uncertainty triumphs. How is the virus transmitted exactly? How long does it survive on a postal package delivered by an infected postman? Will the virus subside once warmer temperatures prevail later this spring? We do not yet have answers to all these questions, yet the fight is on.

The reason governments are acting fast as the coronavirus spreads is simple – procrastinating now would result in the deaths of many more people, and associated economic cost would be tremendous. Why do governments not apply a similar rationale to tackle climate change? The scientific consensus is overwhelming, and various government have even formally declared climate emergencies. Yet we have not seen polluting businesses shut down, factories ordered to produce low-emissions goods, or planes ordered to ground. At a more basic level, no major country has an emissions reduction target in line with the overall goals of the Paris Agreement.[12] Why?

Undoubtedly, governments and individuals do not consider climate change an immediate threat in the same way as they do the corona crisis. Yet this is irrational behavior that disregards the huge economic and welfare implications that inaction today will have. To present some hard numbers: limiting global warming to 1.5°C instead of 2°C is estimated to result in an increase of USD 20 trillion in global GDP by the end of this century (current GDP is roughly USD 80 trillion).[13] 

Or from a healthcare perspective: meeting the targets of the Paris Agreement are predicted to cost only 1 percent of global GDP annually, while providing four times that in health benefits from reduced air pollution alone.[14] In contrast, runaway climate change will cause untold human and economic loss. To put it bluntly – there is a business case for shifting to a cleaner, sustainable planet earth.

Grabbing both beasts by the horns

To beat this ugly beast, what is needed now is political will to use the current short-term disruption as an opportunity to recalibrate the direction of our global economy to a pathway that respects planetary boundaries. Global leaders should first of all acknowledge the climate crisis explicitly, and commit to ambitious pledges that are 1.5°C compliant. Secondly, governments need to use financial stimulus packages to massively upscale investment in low-carbon economic activities. Last but not least, governments need to realise that international cooperation and collaboration is the only way to successfully and cost-effectively tackle runaway climate change. 

So, for now, let’s all keep 1.5 meters apart and stay healthy. But let’s also not forget about the 1.5°C, and the dire consequences not meeting this target would have for humankind. 

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[1] The Journal: Private hospitals will be made public for duration of coronavirus pandemic, 24 March 2020. 

[2] BBC News: Coronavirus: Trump orders 'time-wasting' General Motors to make ventilators, 28 March 2020.

[3] World Health Organization: Climate change and human health - risks and responses. Summary.

[4] World Health Organization: Climate change and health, 1 February 2018.

[5] Xu & Ramanathan, Well below 2 °C: Mitigation strategies for avoiding dangerous to catastrophic climate changes. PNAS 39, 10315-10323 (2017).

[6] Inside Climate News: Trump’s Move to Suspend Enforcement of Environmental Laws is a Lifeline to the Oil Industry, 27 March 2020. 

[7] EU Observer: Will coronavirus torpedo the Green Deal? 20 March 2020. 

[8] Bloomberg News: UK virus stimulus exceeds boost during financial crisis, 24 March 2020. 

[9] Climate Home News: Governments have ‘historic opportunity’ to accelerate clean energy transition, IEA says, 17 March 2020. 

[10] Open Democracy: Governments must act to stop the coronavirus – but we can't return to business as usual, 12 March 2020. 

[11] Bloomberg News: Pelosi Stimulus Requires Airlines Receiving Aid to Cut Emissions, 23 March 2020. 

[12] Climate Action Tracker.

[13] Nature: Curbing global warming could save US$20 trillion, 23 May 2018.

[14] UNFCC Press Release: WHO: Health Benefits Far Outweigh Costs of Meeting Paris Goals, 5 December 2018.