The glaring differences between the concerted global efforts to combat the COVID-19 epidemic and the lackluster efforts to avert a global climate catastrophe have become apparent to everyone. Likewise, the effects of social distancing measures on greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants have been extensively covered by the press. However, even if we leave aside the many personal tragedies caused by the Coronavirus, there is little reason to rejoice.
Although greenhouse gas emissions for 2020 will fall by a few percent due to the pandemic (China’s emissions fell by about 25 percent in February, and Italy’s demand for electricity is estimated to have fallen by 18 percent in March), this drop will remain anecdotal in comparison to what would be needed to meet the climate targets of the Paris Agreement. At most, it shows us what we already knew, namely that the world economy is still very much dependent on fossil fuels.
On the other hand, suggesting that the response to climate change should be similar to the response to COVID-19 could be counterproductive. Despite a number of similarities between COVID-19 and climate change, there are also significant differences between the two. Perhaps the most obvious one is their very different time frame. Another one is that climate change will be solved by transforming our economies, not by stopping them altogether.
Moreover, at the political level, it is doubtful that the COVID-19 crisis will have positive effects on the climate. Once the pandemic is over, it is almost certain that the first and foremost priority of governments will be to revive their economies. As such, greenhouse gas emission will not only rebound, but the climate problem as a whole will considerably drop down the agendas of political leaders.
It will then be up to the climate protection movements to make their voices heard – so that the period after the crisis and the ensuing measures to revitalize the economy can kick-start an urgent and necessary energy transition. The battles of climate change will not be won by a sudden epiphany of the political elites in the wake of COVID-19, but on the streets and at the ballots.
Climate change is not a crisis
Climate change, while also requiring urgent action, is a new reality to which we will have to adapt in the long term. Unlike an epidemic, it cannot be solved by temporary measures that can be lifted once the “crisis” is over. Even though the damage caused by climate change and the number of potential victims in the long run is immeasurably greater than in the case of the Coronavirus, this damage is still relatively abstract compared to the daily victims of COVID-19.
It is certainly tempting to see the pandemic as some kind of allegory for climate change in temporally condensed form. In both cases, the ability to take decisive action early on is fundamental to limiting the damage. In both cases the ability to rely on the best available scientific knowledge is essential for decision-making. And in both cases the behavior of millions of people must be coordinated and adapted simultaneously, which requires extensive political measures.
These similarities should, however, not make us overlook the massive gap between being able to anticipate the spread of a pandemic by a few days (and it would seem that even regarding this, our democracies are sometimes quite powerless), and being able to anticipate a fundamental change in the world’s climate by several decades or even centuries.
We should not underestimate the difference between an immediate problem that is hitting today’s citizens hard and a long-term problem that manifests itself gradually. The COVID-19 pandemic is a standard collective action problem – climate change a problem of intergenerational collective action. Although the consequences of climate change are already very real today, particularly in the most vulnerable countries, much of the worst is yet come. The extended time frame for climate change makes the temptation to procrastinate almost irresistible for societies that – like ours – have developed an addiction to consumption and fossil fuels. We should therefore not expect that once we have won the battle against the Coronavirus, states will suddenly decide to roll up their sleeves and tackle the causes of climate change with the same vigor.
Different ailments require different cures
While stopping an economy dead in its tracks will undoubtedly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is obviously not a viable long-term solution. Measures to limit the spread of the novel Coronavirus seek to minimize social contact. Therefore, they primarily have an effect on the service economy (culture, shared spaces, catering, commerce, etc.) but leave the technical infrastructure of our societies unchanged. Since everyone is confined to their homes, travel and tourism are certainly limited, but there is no fundamental rethinking of our energy model nor of our consumption model, which can continue from a distance.
On the contrary, combating climate change requires structural and permanent changes in our economies that make them more sustainable in the long term. Decarbonizing our society means above all reducing our energy consumption and ensuring a rapid transition to renewable energies. However, there is no need to hinder social contacts from being maintained, or even increased, if they are undertaken in a context of relative energy sobriety. From this point of view, it is easy to imagine that living in a sustainable society will be much more pleasant than living in a society that is regularly subject to the risk of pandemics.
The two scenarios are therefore quite different. What we need in the case of climate change is the invention of a new economic and energy model, which in turn is a dimension that is absent from actions to stem the COVID-19 epidemic. And while some measures against the pandemic might at first sight seem to be moving in the direction of climate protection (e.g. reducing air travel, democratizing videoconferencing), others are moving in the opposite direction (e.g. avoiding public transport and thus promoting individual mobility). There is therefore no immediate way to apply the remedies for one problem to the other. We should not be under any illusions about the possible positive effects of this health crisis on the climate, at least if these are not actively carried and claimed by the population.
Towards a new model?
Having said that, the most important thing this crisis offers is a space for reflection which, if properly utilized, could prove valuable in the long run. This is perhaps a unique opportunity to stop for a moment and question the existing model and our consumption practices, but also to ask ourselves what are the blocking factors that make climate action so slow. Among them are first and foremost our relationship with future generations (why should they deserve less protection than our contemporaries?) and the role of scientific knowledge in our decision-making (climate scientists have been scrambling for three decades to alert us to the catastrophic consequences of climate change, but without any notable political effect to date). While the need to protect the most vulnerable is on everyone’s lips in the context of the COVID-19 epidemic, and quite legitimately so, it is interesting to note that the same argument has been made about climate change since the 1990s. Now is the time to match words with deeds in the climate arena as well.
The current epidemic also shows that what seems absolutely unthinkable in a normal context can very quickly become achievable when the context changes. In dealing with this crisis, we are witnessing a spectacular return to politics, which was thought to be irrevocably subordinated to the economy. The coronavirus crisis shows that democracies are prepared to take extremely vigorous measures when the lives of their own population are at stake. It would make sense to reflect on how we can capitalize on this sudden showing of political courage in the climate arena.
The current crisis allows us to put the costs of the transition to renewable energies into perspective. The cost of energy transition has been estimated at between 300 and 800 billion euros per year for the world as a whole – figures that seem reasonable when compared to the vast economic support undertaken by certain countries in the context of the coronavirus crisis (40 billion euros for Switzerland, 820 billion for Germany and 1800 billion for the USA – and this was only in March).
Although the costs of combating climate change are annual expenditures, they would save millions of lives, prevent worsening living conditions for billions of human beings (and non-human beings) and reduce the risk of an irreversible climate disaster. They will have a positive impact on the economy and the labor market, as well as avoid much higher economic costs in the short and medium term. If we take seriously the right of the most vulnerable and that of future generations to benefit from an environment that provides them with decent living conditions, this is an expenditure that industrialized countries can not only afford but have a moral duty to put into practice.
In this respect, one may also ask whether the vast post-coronavirus economic recovery plans should – at least for certain sectors (transport, energy, heavy industry) – be conditional on curbing CO2 emissions. Last week, eight Democratic senators in the US proposed that any financial aid to airlines should be conditional upon reducing CO2 emissions. Not doing so would mean missing “a major opportunity to fight climate change”. This seems even more relevant for the fossil fuel industry, which in some countries is also asking for government support in the face of falling oil prices.
In any case, it will be up to elected representatives and civil society to ensure that the economic recovery from the crisis does not come at the expense of the environment, because there is a real risk that countries will cling to what they know best: exploiting fossil fuels to revitalize economic growth.
It will be particularly important for the sustainability community to keep the great momentum of 2019 alive to ensure that the fight against climate change is quickly put back on the agenda with the urgency it deserves. In the meantime, let us protect the most vulnerable among us, look after our loved ones and take time for reflection. Every crisis brings risks and difficulties, but also opportunities. Now is the time to seize them.
Related event: Lessons from Pandemia: Why trust and ethics are crucial for dealing with the climate emergency.
Upcoming webinar co-organized with the Heschel Center for Sustainability featuring Dr Augustin Fragnière from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland (Interdisciplinary Centre for Sustainability). An environmental scientist and a philosopher, Dr. Augustin Fragnières conducts research on the ethical and political stakes of global environmental issues. His reflections focus in particular on issues of climate and environmental justice (including inequalities), as well as theories of sustainability.
Date: October 28, 2020.