WE HAVE known for some time that 2020 was going to be a milestone year for the climate change crisis, requiring a radical reversal of the current trajectory in global greenhouse gas emissions. But what we didn’t know was that we would also face a global health crisis this year (covid-19). The decisions we make now to tackle this imminent threat will affect us for generations to come, including our ability to halt global warming.
There is no established link between covid-19 and climate change. However, the way we are altering the planet will make the spread of some diseases more likely.
Mosquito-transmitted diseases, such as dengue and malaria, will become more widespread as climate change makes larger areas warm enough for these insects to thrive. Diseases that originate in animals, like Ebola or covid-19, could become more likely too. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that three-quarters of new and emerging diseases infecting humans originate in animals. Encroachment on their habitats increases the risk of such disease.
The coronavirus pandemic is a tragedy and its consequences will be felt for a long time. Yet though global health conditions will eventually return to a form of normal, our environment will never do so.
Our climate has irreversibly changed: the average global temperature has already risen by 1°C. Our urgent task is to ensure we don’t exceed 1.5°C of warming and so avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
As the covid-19 pandemic is painfully showing, our challenges are increasingly global in nature and require systemic solutions. To control the coronavirus, governments have needed to mandate social distancing, ground aeroplanes and close borders. For climate change, they need to back clean technologies and end subsidies to polluting industries.
Emissions from every country accumulate in the atmosphere independently of where they are released. Therefore cuts will only be effective if all nations are on the same trajectory – towards net-zero emissions by 2050.
But global challenges also require individuals to change their behaviour, which many people have shown can happen quickly. These changes are only effective if all members of society participate. To tackle climate change, we as individuals need to change our diets, consumption patterns, ways of interacting with one another and how we travel.
With covid-19, governments are now agreeing economic stimulus packages to help people and corporations survive the likely recession. It is no exaggeration to say that the decisions they are taking will shape the world for generations.
We must ensure these packages don’t compound the climate crisis. Propping up fossil fuel industries, for example, isn’t a good use of public funding. It would turbocharge greenhouse gas emissions precisely when they need to be falling.
Instead, the packages must be used to kick-start a sustainable path towards a cleaner future. There are many opportunities to invest in low-carbon infrastructure projects that will create jobs and put the world on a safer, fairer and more resilient path.
Moments of crisis are always moments of opportunity. Many crucial decisions will be made over the next few months. As options are considered, we should ask ourselves what is the most effective way to overcome the immediate threat and how to dovetail those decisions into the making of a future where we not only survive, but actually thrive together with nature.