The forgotten crisis

Why responding to COVID-19 should not side-track us from climate action

Cristina Colón
05 May 2020
Expert perspective  |  6 minute read

The COVID-19 pandemic has mobilized the entire world to try to contain its spread. From school closures, to travel restrictions, to social distancing and the shuttering of non-essential businesses — all these measures aimed at limiting the spread of a disease that has caused worldwide havoc on health systems and people.

While a debate can be had about how fast measures began to be implemented by various governments, or how comprehensive these were, the pandemic has brought near universal action. Contrast this with the slow, inconsistent and even counterproductive way the world has up to now responded to another impending global crisis — the destruction of the planet we live on through climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is inarguably the world’s largest looming public health emergency; however, though science supports this claim, many continue to ignore it.

Climate change did not cause coronavirus, but there is increasing evidence that the environmental destruction of our planetary ecosystems and wildlife habitats through climate change and biodiversity loss have made it easier for pathogens to proliferate where they might not have before. In addition, data gathered from COVID-19 related deaths seem to suggest that the virus is particularly lethal for those living in areas with high levels of air pollution due to the increased rates of respiratory disease in the population.


Youth climate activists join in a demonstration calling for global action to combat climate change
On 20 September 2019 in New York City, youth climate activists join in a demonstration calling for global action to combat climate change. Similar actions took place in more than 150 locations worldwide.

Impact on children

It should be obvious that it is our children’s and grandchildren’s futures that are most at stake when it comes to combating climate change and protecting the planet. Despite the fact that children are most impacted by climatic events, they are rarely taken into account when climate action is being contemplated. Our recent analysis shows that only 42 per cent of all Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and only 11 of 13 National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) even refer to children or youth. Yet children and young people consistently demonstrate that the planet’s health is a priority for them and demand action from governments.

As climate change presents a threat to hard-won development gains around the world, results achieved for children’s health, development and well-being over the last decades also threaten to be affected by today’s pandemic. Though children’s health has rarely been directly compromised by COVID-19 infections up to now, their learning, safety and economic well-being have been profoundly affected. These dimensions of child well-being are also exacerbated by climate change.


Unintended silver linings

A glimmer of hope in this crisis is the knowledge that if those in power believe that the matter is grave enough, they can do what is necessary to try and address it. Once the potential for widespread infection, deaths and health system chaos was understood, the world responded. Does this concerted worldwide willingness to mobilise around the pandemic response, also bode well for rallying around climate action?

An unintended and unexpected result of the response to the coronavirus pandemic is a temporary improvement in the environment. Stay-at-home orders or lockdowns in cities in China, Italy and the US have led to temporary decreases in air pollution, which kills almost 7 million people a year; heavily polluted waters in places such as Venice have become clear again due to the absence of water traffic while elsewhere too, wildlife is re-emerging where once it was hidden. In China alone, emissions in February dropped an estimated 25 per cent, which translates into approximately 200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. As the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis showed, we know that these effects are only short-term and any reduction in emissions in 2020 will have no effect on warming predictions. However, economic growth and environmental benefits do not need to be mutually exclusive. Once the virus is under control, what can we do to sustain environmental improvements?

Building back better

As the world deals with the economic ramifications of the global shutdowns due to COVID-19, many countries have started to develop and roll out bailouts, stimulus plans and back-to-work programmes. What these contain and how they are implemented could have a very important effect on sustainability and the climate crisis. Unfortunately, initial indications are that climate and environment efforts will take a back seat to the immediate short-term measures around COVID-19. This is worrisome, especially as we know that wildfires, hurricanes, floods and droughts will continue to impact already strained communities hard hit by the virus.

However, we still have a chance to get this right. As economies begin to relax restrictions, efforts should be made to look at the changes implemented in combatting the coronavirus to understand how we can make more lasting and sustainable choices in our lives. For example, re-thinking needless international travel, personal consumption habits, and encouraging teleworking. More importantly, do we simply re-start industrial manufacturing and agricultural processes where we left off, or do we begin to smartly invest in sustainable, long-term options?

Interestingly, a recent Ipsos poll of 2,800 people in 14 countries shows that 71 per cent of adults globally agree that climate change is just as serious a crisis as COVID-19 in the long term and 65 per cent support government actions that prioritize climate change in the economic recovery. This raises the possibility that today’s crisis could prompt a shift towards more prudent policies, as societies take seriously the challenge of averting other crises and managing risks. Some forward-looking suggestions, might be:

  • Green recovery deals: While initial efforts will be on providing immediate relief to those affected negatively by the shutdowns, longer-term recovery efforts should be fair, green, and inclusive. A green stimulus framework can look to already existing plans in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) or National Adaptation Plans (NAPs). Energy efficiency, nature conservation, clean energy options, and the sustainability of transport are clear win-win areas for stimulus investments and energy ministers from some of the world's largest economies have recently met at a global summit on how to put renewables at the centre of post-coronavirus recovery plans. To this end, the World Bank has recently developed a draft sustainability checklist which looks at short- and long-term needs: in the short term to create decent jobs and salaries, and stimulate economic demand as quickly as possible; and in the longer term to deliver sustainable growth and prosperity, for example long-term growth for human, physical and natural capital, decarbonization and resilience to future shocks.
  • Sustainability and resilience: The risk of a pandemic was always present, and yet when it arrived, it showed that countries were painfully unprepared. Similarly, we know that climate change is happening and will continue to get worse. The lesson from COVID-19 is that when absolutely necessary, behaviours and actions can quickly change. In many ways then, the COVID-19 crisis is actually a test run for the sustainability agenda and an opportunity for companies and governments to see how they can include long-term social, economic and environmental co-benefits in their investment and development planning.  By adapting now, they will also develop resilience to any future shocks. Despite predictions following the 2008-2009 financial crisis, sustainability remained a top priority for many companies; now there is an opportunity to continue to build responsibly and proactively on that.
  • Education, skills development and the green economy: Though economic recovery is at the forefront of everyone’s minds, we cannot overlook the importance of strengthening the education sector. The long-term effect of worldwide school closures during the pandemic is still not known, but for children who were already struggling to learn, its disruptive effects are more immediately apparent. As we look to transition to a more equitable, inclusive and sustainable society, education systems must be able to prepare children and young people to actively participate in and contribute to this society. Effective green legislation and investment can support education systems by providing children and young people with the equitable education and career pathways essential for achieving a sustainable and just future.

COVID-19 is already showing children and young people that the world they will live in will differ greatly from that of their parents. The “new normal” necessitated over the last few months to address the pandemic will change forever certain aspects of society. That new normal could be a positive one if it means societies awakening to the threats posed by unsustainable living, mitigating future risks, and investing in the world their children will inherit. Stimulus packages for a sustainable future therefore must address not just the immediate health and economic shortcomings but also climate change and its impact on children. UNICEF’s recent report provides some guidance on how to make these policies child-sensitive and ensure their voices are given due consideration in the process. While a vaccine may protect us from coronavirus in a year or two, there is no vaccine for climate change. Therefore, as recently stated by the United Nations Secretary General, let’s ensure that fighting this disease does not detract from the need to defeat climate change.