Coronavirus: learning for the climate crisis

I’m a climate scientist not an epidemiologist, but like many of my researcher colleagues, I’ve been reading the swiftly published papers and coding up the predictive models coming from another community to try and make sense of the evolving global crisis we find ourselves in.

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I’m a climate scientist not an epidemiologist, but like many of my researcher colleagues, I’ve been reading the swiftly published papers and coding up the predictive models coming from another community to try and make sense of the evolving global crisis we find ourselves in. The turn-around time from data collection by doctors and nurses on the ground to publication with open access to everyone, no questions asked, has been truly impressive. Governments are paying closer attention to research and experts than ever before. It is clear that nations are basing their responses on the emerging evidence and adapting health, economic and social distancing polices as we learn more. What learning can we take from this tragedy for the evolving climate crisis, and how can we make sure the world that emerges on the other side is more resilient to future shocks including, but not limited to, climate change?

Not just climate needs fixing.

To build towards a vision of a more resilient world for our children, policies need to address the climate crisis alongside other issues such as health, poverty, fairness, and the robustness of our international institutions. This holistic approach has been part of the UN Sustainability Goals for a while but both national and international policies have largely targeted a single issue. Shoring up our global health system and encouraging economic growth will be the necessary foci of near term government policy. These policies will also need to get us on a path to net-zero. Here in the UK, the NHS itself realises this: you can’t help but love the institution even more for finding time to plan a net-zero pathway in the midst of its coronavirus response[1].

Fairness needs to be front and centre.

Many families are already suffering as a result of coronavirus, with bereavement, financial pressures and a wide range of other factors. Although elderly relatives may be most at risk from the virus, it is their grandchildren that will need to meet the costs of both economic and societal recovery. Like climate change, the virus will have the greatest impact on the poorest and most vulnerable and add to intergenerational inequality. The economic fallout is being felt across all sectors of the economy, with aviation being one of the most prominent. Aviation is not the most loved of industries in activism circles, but trade, tourism and livelihoods depend on it across the globe, including in many developing nations. Yes, it needs to get to net-zero, just like all other industries, but this transition needs to properly consider the services it provides and the livelihoods it benefits. There are vanishingly few examples of a just transition in history to learn from. Working together to minimise the societal impacts of coronavirus could become the blueprint for future transitions, including the one to net-zero.

Behaviour change is an important part but not the whole part.

The virus response is a global case study that shows we can change the habits of a lifetime in a very short space of time, and for the benefit of all. Some changes, such as online meetings and more homeworking will hopefully stick, especially if the virus recovery plans adopted by organisations are also net-zero plans. Air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have dropped, in places by tens of percent. The measures to achieve this have been extreme and are not sustainable. Chinese air pollution is already bouncing back. This shows clearly that behaviour change alone is not enough for net-zero without underlying structural change. New technologies such as carbon capture and removal will be needed, as will transformed transport systems and homes. However, it has now been shown that we do have the capacity to change many of our behaviours in response to a global crisis, in a way that can deliver added benefits.

Planning for the worst is good insurance.

The risks of a respiratory virus-driven pandemic were well known but still caught the world on the back foot, particularly in Western economies, where the coronavirus is still spreading very rapidly. With climate change we have an advantage in that we know what, where and when we can expect to see the impacts. Being resilient to these impacts requires investing in and planning adaptation solutions now to save both money and lives further down the road. If the global effects of either coronavirus or climate change take too much out of our economies, and our international institutions are weakened as a result, we will not be able to deliver the necessary support to the places and people that need it most. We are already seeing firefighting as a result of coronavirus, due to a lack of preparedness, and we need to ensure that this does not happen again.

Responsible scientists.

As the world reels, scientists are seizing the opportunity to contribute their expertise and experience to solving the crisis, in healthcare but also in many other fields. At the Priestley Centre at the University of Leeds, we are looking at the effects of changes in pollution and lack of contrails on air quality and climate, and at the behaviour changes and attitudes to online working and travelling. We have a responsibility to make this research accessible to all and to ensure it gets into the hands of the people that need it most by providing solutions not just problems. This way, we can collectively make good evidence-based decisions to build a more climate-resilient world, as well as a more just society. Coronavirus has given us a learning experience we never wanted, let’s make sure we use it.

Professor Piers Forster
Director, Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds