Climate action lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic

28 Apr 2020

Photo Credit: Unsplash / Macau Photo Agency

As the world is struggling with the rapid-onset COVID-19 crisis, and while it is early to conclude which response strategies were the most successful, we can already start drawing some lessons to help shape our response to the slow-onset disaster of climate change. We share here seven such lessons on how to ensure that the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis will happen in a way that will still put the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement at the center of sustainable development efforts.

1. Put science and scientists first
From the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists came together to form collaborative networks beyond political lines and national borders, which has increased the efficiency and speed in research to find a cure. Similarly, policy for advancing climate action should follow science, rather than having political differences interfering with, and preventing, scientific research to be carried out. While the global response to the climate emergency is, and should continue to be, part of multilateral negotiations, science is not negotiable. Well informed climate negotiations mean unimpeded transparency and scientific cooperation, such as the one provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

2. Adopt a “whatever money it takes” approach
Investments that can save even one life, improve livelihoods and the health of ecosystems are never too much. Governments have quickly mobilized financial support to back businesses and expand welfare benefits in response to the COVID-19 pandemic; and this is the right thing to be done! But we often see that much-needed investments on climate action fall victim to difficult negotiations and political conflicts. An urgent fund mobilization is needed to avoid a climate catastrophe. Research shows that the climate investments needed also make great economic sense. For example, it is estimated that for every dollar invested in climate resilient infrastructure six dollars are saved.

3. Protect and improve common goods.
Over-exploitation of common goods, without consideration for the long-term needs of our next generations, has resulted in the “tragedy of the commons”, with big environmental impacts, including the zoonotic origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cases of response to the current pandemic show that previous investments by countries in public health and welfare systems have produced better results. Equally important are investments to restore clean air and water, healthy ecosystems, and other environment and climate goods, which contribute to planetary health.

4. Focus on those already left behind
The COVID-19 pandemic struck fast and affected those most vulnerable, those who had little means and access to health-care services, and those in nursing homes and homes for persons with disabilities. In the case of climate change, the ones that have been left behind include inter alia poor farmers, people who lack access to basic services, people living in slums as well as climate migrants. Climate mitigation and adaptation activities should put these and other vulnerable groups at the center of attention and response.

5. Make the global value chains climate resilient
The COVID-19 driven disruption in sectors like transport, medicine and tourism was immediate and hard. The climate crisis with its low on-set characteristics will drive at least similar if not larger implications in the value chains of main sectors. But it will likely do this over a longer time. There is an opportunity to develop systems able to increase the resilience of value chains in climate sensitive sectors; and ensure that critical commodities and services are available to all at times of climate-induced disasters. This will also impact the supply of funds and finances, which need to be directed to deal with critical situations, rather than bailing out polluting industries in decline, creating quick stimulus for sustainable and low-carbon commodities and common goods services.

6. Fix and make sustainable the food systems
The FAO has started documenting the negative impacts of COVID-19 on food security. The impacts of climate change on agriculture have also been extensively documented by the IPCC and it is evident that the most crucial global value chain that must be secured against the climate emergency is the food supply chain. Making agriculture and food systems more sustainable is not science fiction. Many policy options have been proposed and already implemented including inter alia ecological rotation of crops, robust estimation of the true cost of food, reducing food waste, fair trade, drastically reducing pesticides, decarbonizing food production and distribution systems.

7. Ensure credible information and not fake news leads the public discussion
Since the causes and risks of climate change are already well examined, documented and vetted, scientific facts and solutions need to be brought widely to the attention of the public to avoid speculations and misconstrued theories, which only cause anxiety and panic, as is happening around this novel disease. The science is unequivocal, and the advocacy should be as large as ever to make every climate denier become a climate champion.

Related SDGs: Goal 3: Good health and well-being, Goal 13: Climate action