Climate and Covid-19

March 30, 2020


The writer is an Islamabad-based expert on climate change and development.
The writer is an Islamabad-based expert on climate change and development.

IN less than three months, the Covid-19 pandemic has engulfed the entire world. As the number of infections and deaths continue to increase, it has brought the global economy to a screeching halt. This pandemic combines an unfortunate triple jeopardy: rapid loss of human lives, fast economic recession, and structural disruption in efforts to combat global warming. Never before had these three factors coincided to determine the gravity of a pandemic. This year was regarded as critical for international climate action, centred on COP-26 in Glasgow, but the pandemic has distracted world attention. Given the fact that climate change is the defining challenge of our time, even as serious a crisis as this should not be allowed to derail the Paris Agreement.

While Covid-19 is affecting humans directly and its impact is tragically visible, climate change is affecting the ecological system within which humans live and upon which their very survival depends. Perhaps Covid-19 will forever change our globalised lifestyles — something climate change has so far not been able to do, despite its seriousness.

The pandemic has significantly reduced carbon emissions released into the atmosphere. Ironically, it has cut emissions faster than 25 years of global climate negotiations. According to the New YorkTimes, the reduction of emissions in China since January has surpassed the total emissions of New York City for a year. NASA’s monitoring satellites have shown a dramatic fall in nitrous oxide, a pollutant emitted from fossil fuels. This abrupt reduction has an illustrative value of what the world would need to do to stabilise global temperatures at less than 2°C.

Similar past events, such as the 2008 recession, did not affect the overall atmospheric pollution because of the carbon stock that had already been released into the atmosphere. As the pandemic is contained, hopefully, in the coming months and the world economy begins to resurge, global emissions will also pick up as factories will be expected to make up for lost time. The recent sharp decline in oil prices, however, has provided a rare opportunity to fast-track energy supplies from renewable sources to propel climate compatible development.

The pandemic has made a bad situation worse, but has also provided a rare opportunity.

Under the Paris Agreement, all signatories are expected to announce new pledges to reduce emissions. The pandemic has already disrupted the crucial negotiations process ahead of COP-26. Preparatory meetings have been called off, potentially derailing climate negotiations at a critical juncture. Additionally, Covid-19 threatens to hamper policymakers’ ability to make ambitious commitments to climate financing and emissions reductions. It is important to note that economic measures being taken in response to the pandemic will have a long-term bearing on addressing climate mitigation and adaptation. Covid-19 has made a bad situation worse. But it has also provided a rare opportunity to make some hard decisions.

For decades, the scientific community has listed seven broad areas in which climate change will affect health: temperature-related death and illness, air quality, extreme events (such as disasters), vector-borne diseases, water-related illness, food safety and nutrition, and mental health. Several WHO studies have predicted climate-induced endemics and pandemics.

Unlike past pandemics, Covid-19 and the climate crisis go hand in hand. There is no scientific evidence that the pandemic was caused by global warming, yet it is too early to rule out that it was not ignited by climate change. There is growing scientific evidence that changing weather patterns are driving species northward, towards higher altitudes, potentially putting them in contact with diseases for which they have little immunity. We have witnessed this in Pakistan as both malaria and dengue have steadily moved towards higher altitudes.

A watertight demarcation between these two crises is not desirable. Yet, the parallels between the response to the coronavirus and climate crisis are compelling: we have known about the adverse impacts of climate change for at least four decades, whereas the arrival of coronavirus is sudden, almost overnight. Yet, most governments, including Pakistan’s, have made response plans on an emergency basis — an urgency that is, ironically, still absent from the climate change arena.

While pandemics affect everyone, the most immediately exposed to Covid-19 are elderly people, mostly men, and the middle classes (and those working with them) that are more closely tied to the global economy through international travel, trade, production, supply chain, and public, cultural, religious and sports events — mostly in urban and crowded areas. Climate change, on the other hand, also affects everyone, but immediately vulnerable are the poor, marginalised, women, children, elderly, and people living off nature, in low-lying coastal areas, islands and high-altitude glacial terrains, or engaged in subsistence agriculture. In other words, while the pandemic has a stronger bias against the urban elite that has shared and defined the size of the ecological and carbon footprint over the last half century, victims of climate change are often those who have contributed little to climate emissions. Climate-induced disasters visit them often, though, and hit them hard through extreme events such as droughts, floods, heatwaves, and seawater intrusion; these people mostly fall in the realm of poverty and adaptation.

Urgent action to prevent Covid-19 is, of course, necessary. While the pandemic poses many challenges and threats, there are hardly any long-term opportunities. On the other hand, a systematic response to climate change would provide many co-benefits: ranging from green jobs, clean air, renewable energy, affordable transportation, to protected ecosystems and biodiversity. If climate change represents an existential threat, why, then, is the same sense of urgency absent from policy circles?

The global drive to start reducing carbon emissions before 2030 gives a 10-year window to begin decarbonising the world economy. The deepening global recession offers an opportunity for Pakistan to pursue a green economic corridor with China, work with the IMF and other development partners to manage economic and budgetary contraction, and to protect itself from climate threats. All government policies will now be seen through the prism of Covid-19. A similar climate lens should be applied to mitigate climate risks. Our ability to manage Covid-19 will show that it can be done.

The writer is an Islamabad-based expert on climate change and development.

Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2020