Is Covid-19 our wake up call on climate?

We are aware of the climate risks, yet turning a blind eye.

In 2019, the UN Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap report highlighted that despite global commitments under the Paris Climate Change Agreement, the world is heading towards a temperature rise of over 3°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100, risking lives and livelihoods the world over.

The World Bank estimates that without urgent action, climate impacts could push an additional 100 million people into poverty by 2030.

Greenhouse gas emissions are already responsible for millions of deaths per year and putting strain on health systems worldwide, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) warning that over 40% of the world’s population will not have access to adequate health services to respond to climate health risks by 2030 under business as usual scenarios.

Despite these warnings, each year we tiptoe further towards a cascade of tipping points that will irreversibly change our climate system with devastating impacts on our economies and societies.

A colourful view of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) blocks on the northern lawn of United Nations Headquarters. Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elias

Since the Coronavirus emerged in late 2019, the world we know has changed. 

With half the world in lockdown, with factories and businesses closed, little to no travel, and life far from as we know it, it has shown how political and corporate leaders can take innovative emergency action to protect human wellbeing when needed.

The lockdown has shown how government policies and behavioural action can have dramatic and immediate impacts on our environment.  Satellite data from NASA and the European Space Agency are showing a sharp global reduction in nitrogen dioxide, and a 25% reduction in China’s carbon emissions over a 4-week lockdown period according to a study by Carbon Brief.

However, falling emissions with nature in bloom comes with a large “but”.

The Coronavirus pandemic is clearly not just a health crisis, but a social and economic one too.

Coronavirus has hit the world hard; economically damaging countries and livelihoods in ways we are still yet to see the full extent of. Already, millions have filed for unemployment since March 2020 and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that as many as 195 million job losses could be incurred worldwide as businesses struggle to stay afloat amidst the global shutdown.

The pandemic threatens a looming global economic crisis, like the Great Depression following the pandemic last century, when there were only two billion humans on Earth.  The risk is that a health crisis rapidly becomes a humanitarian crisis, particularly in the developing world.

 The interconnection between the health of our societies at large, with our economies, and with our environment, has never been better exemplified than in recent months. Whilst our health and our health systems have been top priorities, the environment has mutually benefitted, yet our economies have been starkly damaged, in turn affecting livelihoods.

The intricate balance between social, environmental and economic factors has long been understood to be at the heart of sustainable development.

The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted just how fragile that balance is, and how the delicate balance of sustainability does not fit neatly within national borders in a globalized world.

Secretary-General António Guterres (seated) speaks with a UNTV Studio Technician ahead of a virtual press conference. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

What lessons can we learn?

Just as Covid-19 has infected human beings across the planet at an exponential rate over months, the impacts of climate change on our societies, environment and economies have also been growing exponentially, but over decades since the early 19th century.

In recognising the weight of the physical world on our economic spreadsheets, and in validating science in our policymaking, we will also need to stretch our policymaking on scales that extend across the jurisdictional spectrum from subnational-national-international levels.  The only way to effectively integrate borderless environmental and physical considerations into our sustainability balance will be to strengthen global cooperation, with spokes of influence extending down to subnational and local levels, including civil society and individuals.

What role can the UN play?

True sustainability will not be achieved unless we recognise our interconnectivity on a planetary scale, coupling governance mechanisms and built infrastructure. The UN governance architecture straddles the interests of all nation states, and also stretches across time horizons that go beyond political turnover periods.  It can therefore hold the key to the dynamic balance of sustainability.  In order for both climate change and Covid-19 to be solved, we must operate short-term to long-term with global cooperation, balancing national interests with common interests on a planetary scale.

Former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hosted a signing ceremony for the Paris Agreement on Climate Change on 22 April 2016 at the United Nations in New York. Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

In the face of crisis we have a regrowth and reset opportunity, and we all have a responsibility as individuals, communities, companies or governments to rebuild better and greener.

 The Covid-19 pandemic is a rare opportunity to accelerate progress on climate action and sustainable development, learning to address exponential change on Earth over month-years as well as decades-centuries.  The empowerment for us all exists with the Sustainable Development Goals as a gift to humanity, involving concurrent inspiration of international consensus through the Paris Climate Change Agreement.  Let us approach our pandemic across a continuum of urgencies before and after the inflection point, which is on the horizon.

A view of the screen in the Secretary-General António Guterres' conference room as he takes part in the extraordinary Virtual Leaders’ Summit of the Group of Twenty (G-20) on the Covid-19 Pandemic. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Business as usual does not work.  With stewardship from the UN, recovery strategies should acknowledge that we need to work together to rebuild with resilience as a globally-interconnected civilization.

Our common future will include increased spending on renewable energies along with sustainable infrastructure, production and consumption, as well as a financial system that supports the intricacies at local-global scales with eight billion people on Earth this decade.

* Rabih El Haddad is Director of the Division for Multilateral Diplomacy at UNITAR (The United Nations Institute for Training and Research). Paul Arthur Berkman is Director of the Science Diplomacy Center at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. Emily Fraser works at UNITAR (The United Nations Institute for Training and Research).