The global tally of Covid-19 has gone passed 14 million. There have been more than 600,000 deaths and unbearable economic loss. These figures are disastrous and highlight the enormity of the task to tackle this pandemic. However, despite this, what is most concerning about Covid-19 is not the virus itself though, but rather that it may be a sign of things to come. Climate change, a quandary of our own making, is set to become the worst crisis of our times. If we fail to appreciate our collective vulnerability and responsibility to act accordingly, the consequences will shape human lives and civilization for millennia.
Covid-19 and the climate
The coronavirus pandemic is likely to be followed by even more deadly and destructive disease outbreaks unless their root cause – the rampant destruction of the natural world – is rapidly halted. Environmental destruction could lead to a greater spread of deadly human diseases via animals and other organisms, with serious consequences for public health. Global warming isn’t the only environmental change that could increase disease risk. Clearance of the Amazon rainforest seems to be driving up the spread of malaria, suggests research by Andrew MacDonald and Erin Mordecai at Stanford University in California. Their analysis of 13 years of malaria cases and forest satellite data for the Brazilian Amazon show that a 10 per cent increase in deforestation was associated with a 3.27 per cent increase in malaria cases – almost 10,000 additional cases every year. That is probably because more people end up settling closer to mosquito-infested areas and are more likely to get bitten, while logging creates more mosquito-friendly habitats.
More importantly, it vastly increases the likelihood of cascading disasters. In the case of Covid-19, health impacts won’t stop at infection itself, but will be amplified by broad economic and social fallout. In the short term, it exposes us to increased risks. Last year witnessed devastating heat waves in Europe, unprecedented wildfires in Australia, thousands of deaths due to Cyclone Idai and a host of other extreme weather events. There is no reason to believe 2020 will not deliver similar shocks to societies now handicapped by the economic impacts of the pandemic, with stretched emergency management capabilities and depleted health systems. Over longer timeframes, Covid-19 will have serious physical and mental health consequences through its effect on the global economy, on global and regional food systems, and on available resources for disaster response and social protection. The World Bank currently estimates that 40-60 million people will be driven into extreme poverty in 2020, a loss of about three years’ progress in poverty reduction.
Similarly, climate change will generate events that escalate and proliferate, from multiple breadbasket failures to climate-induced conflicts and refugee crises. Covid-19 is in many ways unprecedented, but climate change threatens to produce shocks of greater magnitude that play out over longer timeframes, as highlighted in the IPCC’s special report, Global Warming of 1.5°C. Without sufficient action, the long-term impacts of the climate crisis on health and the economy will play out year after year.
The intersection of Covid-19 and climate is complex. Some of the same factors that cause climate change are also worsening the pandemic — for example, outcomes of infection are more serious in areas where populations have been exposed to air pollution. This is no surprise. Air pollution is responsible for seven million premature deaths per year, according to the WHO, often as a risk factor for other conditions. Indeed, we have long known that many of the underlying drivers of climate change have wide-ranging repercussions for health.
On the other hand, the pandemic response has led to precipitous drops in air pollution. By some estimates, cleaner air during the crisis has avoided 11,000 deaths in Europe. Lockdowns, travel bans and closed manufacturing sites have caused global emissions to drop by 4.6%, or 2.5 gigatonnes, according to a University of Sydney review of 38 regions and 26 sectors published in the journal Plos One. Fine particle pollution decreased by 3.8% and two other types of air pollution declined 2.9%: sulfur dioxide – which is linked to a number of respiratory issues, and nitrogen oxide, which leads to smog. The largest emissions drops occurred in the United States and China, largely due to grounded air travel and a decrease in power, water and gas use, but they come with a large economic cost. From late February to May, the study found the pandemic caused 147 million people, or 4.2% of the global workforce, to lose full-time jobs and triggered a $3.8tn drop in consumption, making it the worst economic shock since the Great Depression.
And yet, even this massive reduction would not yield a trajectory to limit global warming to 1.5°C. According to the latest science, this would require a 7.6% reduction per year. The transformations required are truly colossal
Reasons to be optimistic
But there is some hope. For if Covid-19 is a precautionary tale, it is also a crash course in the possible. In our individual and collective innovations to meet and adapt to this crisis, in the connectivity that makes it a shared experience, and perhaps most of all in the elevation of health to centre-stage in our minds, new trajectories are becoming more feasible and more likely.
Covid-19 has led to experiments at all scales. It has changed the ways people live, work and move, their relationships with government and employment, and in some cases it has accelerated existing trends. To name a few, remote working has become the norm; more consumer purchasing has moved online; cities are experimenting with converting streets to accommodate walking and cycling, and international travel has almost come to a halt — though temporarily.
These and other developments will not persist unabated, but they will leave their mark on people’s lives and our post- Covid-19 world in unpredictable ways.
More immediately, a rapidly emerging consensus demands that the stimulus devoted to combating the economic consequences of the pandemic charts a healthier course for the future, asserting that we have a responsibility to do things differently. Critically, this position is embraced by much of the business community, which recognizes that business-as-usual is untenable.
To date, more than 700 companies globally have signed a host of open letters to world leaders, calling on them to ensure that economic stimulus packages tackle both the impacts of the coronavirus and the ongoing climate crisis.
Meanwhile, over 4,500 health professionals and more than 350 organizations, representing at least 40 million health workers worldwide, have urged the leaders of the G20 to ensure a green recovery.
So, while the pain of Covid-19 is devastating, it has created a policy window for climate action that six months ago would have been unimaginable. In the next year, trillions of dollars will be spent on recovery plans, stimulus packages and company bailouts. During this historic moment, governments can change the course of the future, investing in technologies that prevent systemic risks, including those presented by climate change, drastically reducing emissions and improving societal resilience. Business must play a key role, applying its innovative capacity, solution focus and financial acumen to the problem. If we are to avoid a repeat of the dramatic human and economic situation we confront today, governments, business and society must collaborate to:
Both businesses and governments can address health and climate risks by adopting clear, science-based pathways to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. In the process this will create a 100% clean-energy system, accelerate the transition to zero-carbon mobility, build the zero-carbon heavy industries of the future and harness the potential of natural climate solutions. In addition to tackling the climate crisis, these pathways will generate decent jobs and safeguard health and wellbeing. Economic stimulus in the wake of Covid-19 should be dedicated to enabling these pathways.
Address health risks
Global health security frameworks must encompass all hazards, including those arising from climate change. Preparing for and addressing these risks requires fostering collective, committed planning and prevention for global threats across all nations of the world and all stakeholder domains.
Covid-19 has made visible the deep vulnerabilities and inequities that permeate so many of our cities and urban lifestyle. In the post-pandemic era, we must rethink urban design, planning and management and our relationships to urban systems. Stimulus responses to Covid-19 must promote healthier air, healthier mobility, healthier work and healthier play, among others. They must point the way to cities in which all citizens have access to security and opportunity, and they must put health at the heart of urban life.
We have a responsibility to build back healthier.