Our Burning Planet

Coronavirus Op-ed

The Covid-19 crisis and the climate: A bittersweet moment

With all its imperfections, the global policy response to the Covid-19 pandemic has delivered more results in two months than decades of climate crisis negotiations, says the writer. (Image: Adobestock)

What is required to mitigate climate change and its impacts is a large-scale, worldwide response, such as the one triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. The current crisis demonstrates that a rapid, ambitious, global response is possible.

By the end of March 2020, one in three people across the globe (including South Africa), was experiencing the harsh reality of a lockdown in order to fight Covid-19. 

The spread of the virus has triggered an unprecedented worldwide response composed of rigorous social restrictions as well as ambitious economic support packages and, for a while, has eclipsed all other crises, including the climate one. This is a bittersweet moment for the mobilisation against the climate crisis, but it demonstrates that, in times of urgency, a swift and significant global response is possible.

The global lockdown has led to a rejuvenation of nature, with ecosystems, biodiversity and even urban environments rediscovering a degree of peace and serenity. It has also led to a much-needed, material decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and the significant restrictions on purchases outside of “essential goods and services” have furthermore put a grinding halt to the cult of unnecessary materialistic consumerism.

Like every period of material decrease in greenhouse gas emissions before it (such as both World Wars, the 1929 and 2009 crises, and the collapse of the Soviet Union), the current crisis only delivers short-lived and temporary relief for a burning planet Earth and crumbling ecosystems.

At worst, the rebound effect will offset any respite. As the economy and society recovers, greenhouse gas emissions are set to burst again. Crisis over, the resource-hungry nature of our society will once again prevail, putting the world back on an unsustainable trajectory of socio-environmental destruction. Addressing climate change cannot be a temporary endeavour or effectively the consequence of another catastrophic event or a crisis.

In addition, the pandemic itself and the response to it come with dramatic socio-economic consequences. The closure of most businesses and movement restrictions have put the livelihood of billions of people at risk. An economic crisis, however induced, is not a sustainable channel to combat climate change and its impacts.

The Covid-19 crisis, like climate change, is an expression of wide inequalities. It originates in the exploitation of resources (be it endangered species or fossil fuels), to the benefit of the few, and primarily affects vulnerable groups, i.e. workers, small businesses, the unemployed and low-income communities at large.

To be sustainable, the response to climate change cannot lead to dramatic socio-economic impacts on vulnerable groups. A just transition, through which vulnerable groups are better-off, is necessary. Unlike in the case of the Covid-19 crisis, which has been sudden and high-intensity, the long-term nature of climate change offers a unique opportunity to design and implement a sustainable response.

But if the world waits for climate change to trigger an impact similar to Covid-19, it will be too late. Given the threat of climate change on human society and the economy, radical action against climate change should already be underway. The need for a global, dramatic response to mitigate climate change is known. 

Arguably, it has been known for decades. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its multiple reports, makes it clear. Climate change will increasingly have dramatic effects on poverty, inequality as well as human and ecosystem wellbeing. The impacts will furthermore disproportionately affect disadvantaged and vulnerable populations through food insecurity, higher food prices, income losses, lost livelihood opportunities, adverse health impacts and population displacements.

The Covid-19 policy response has illustrated the potential of a worldwide reaction, fast learning processes, trial-and-error policymaking and progressive tailoring of the mix of measures. Countries, such as South Africa, effectively harnessed the experience of places affected before them, such as China and the European Union.

In addition, governments, in front of the exponential growth of the pandemic and imminent human catastrophe, have been prompt in altering and extending their responses, both on the sanitary and socio-economic fronts, to flatten the curve of the disease spread, as well as to provide some degree of relief to the economy and society. The response to the virus has furthermore shattered the realm of orthodoxy to release the powers of monetary and fiscal policies.

Governments are announcing stimulus packages one after the other, with much more vigour than those implemented after the 2007/2008 financial crisis. From interest rate cuts and investment drives to tax holidays and restrictions on retrenchment and dividends, governments have used many tools to curb the negative socio-economic impacts of the pandemic. In the long run, it might even lead, in some cases, to the permanent extension of social security and safety nets for vulnerable groups.

With all its imperfections, the global policy response to the Covid-19 pandemic has delivered more results in two months than decades of climate change negotiations. The nature of the pandemic has had governments waging war against the disease one after the other.   

The Covid-19 policy response also highlights important lessons. In some corners, it has led to attempts to capture public policy in favour of villainous laws or abuse against workers’ rights, human liberties and democratic principles. 

In most cases, the stimulus packages also fail to challenge the status quo, directing vast resources towards unsustainable industry without any compromise. Support for large businesses should be climate-compatible and the assistance directed to vulnerable groups should not be a short-term bandage, but a systemic response to improve the standard of living and resilience.

In addition, unfortunately, the global response to Covid-19 has been a largely uncoordinated and inward-focused reaction structured around a nationalistic call to wage war on the disease. The Covid-19 crisis has even placed the Schengen “free-movement” area on the brink of collapse.

Fighting climate change requires a collaborative approach between all spheres of society. If it is to redress the inequalities linked to climate change, its response must also see significant support from high-income countries towards the rest of the world. It must also heavily redirect resources towards local, sustainable activities, including education, health, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy and the circular management of resources.

A just transition to a sustainable model of development would be beneficial from a socio-economic perspective. It would create a large amount of local employment, reduce exposure to volatile, expensive and largely imported fossil fuels, bring innovation and generate vast savings from improvements in human and ecosystem health. In addition, the solutions to decarbonise are largely available and, in most cases, cost-effective. This is definitely the case of electricity supply and transport, the two largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions globally.

What is lacking is the political will to embark on a deep transformation of the economy and society, challenging the status quo and vested interests. The questions and lessons brought about by the Covid-19 crisis, on the relationship between society and nature, on health, and on inclusive development should all be harnessed to design a just transition to a sustainable economy and society.

It will be difficult. But there is hope. The Covid-19 crisis is proof. A global response is possible. But, in the case of climate change, a global, coordinated response, larger than the sum of its parts, is required. MC

 Gaylor Montmasson-Clair is a Senior Economist at Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS), based in Pretoria.

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