This year’s Earth Day comes at an unusual moment for those working in the climate space. Given the enormity and urgency of the COVID-19 crisis, it is easy to push climate action to one side. But we should welcome the fact that society has, by and large, been able to respond quickly, listen to scientific experts and take decisive policy decisions.
We should also be thankful and recognise that, out of caution, many are doing what needs to be done in keeping physical distance from each other. Furthermore, out of compassion, many are helping in any way they can while backing policies that protect the most vulnerable who will be disproportionately affected. The most vulnerable will be affected by the outcomes of the climate crisis too.
COVID-19 and the pressing issue of climate change parallel one another in important ways, and the Government’s response to the outbreak could hold lessons for those urging climate action. Both can be seen as what Michele Wucker describes as, “grey rhinos”, meaning they are highly obvious and highly probable events that will occur in society, and yet are risks that are largely ignored until they are upon us. Experts have consistently warned us of both the climate emergency and the possibility of a global pandemic.
While the current decrease in carbon emissions caused by the halt in economic activity and a sharp drop in travel is likely to rebound once the lockdown has been lifted, it is important to consider the impact of the crisis on longer-lasting behavioural change. For example, emissions from driving are expected to increase as people return to work but remain fearful of crowded public transport. On the other hand, the crisis has demonstrated that flexible and remote working can be a reality and will reduce the need to commute. What will be the new reality?
Both coronavirus and the climate emergency are crises of exponential growth consuming systems with a limited capacity to respond. Both highlight and exacerbate previously unseen vulnerabilities in our society. With coronavirus, the danger is that our healthcare systems are unable to cope with the huge infection rates; with climate change, it is being unable to manage the climate catastrophes such as floods that come as consequence.
The pandemic has brought to public attention that the only way to address these issues is to act in preparation for predicted movements in exponential growth, rather than reacting to the current reality around you. Elizabeth Sawin, co-director of Climate Interactive, suggests that, “if we can tell that story of what we just went through and help people understand that this is an accelerated version of another story we’re going through that has the same plot structure but a different timeline, that could be transformative.”
Positive preventative action has helped to “flatten the curve” and lessen the strain on the healthcare system. In a similar way, accelerating climate action could reduce the scale and frequency of natural disasters and the severity of sea level rises, thus protecting vulnerable communities globally and increasing communities’ resilience. Through this pandemic we are seeing how unsustainable it is to rely only on crisis management and reactive intervention.
The steps we will take soon are crucial in dictating whether we meet the carbon targets set out in the Paris Agreement and stay below a 1.5 or 2°C increase in global average temperatures. While we, of course, need to focus immediate efforts on defeating coronavirus and restarting the economy, it is also essential that this recovery is delivered with the ultimate goal of a net zero society in sight.
Poppy Kettle is ACE/EIC Net Zero Adviser and supports the joint Net Zero campaign.