What Can Climate Scientists Learn from a Pandemic? By: Ellie Rill

Image Courtesy: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

As climate efforts seemed to be hitting a peak worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the physical manifestations of the movement to a complete stop. At a time when people are told to maintain distance between one another and the top priority is staying safe, how can citizens continue the fight for climate action? People have fought for years to educate the general population about the pressing issue of climate change. Some wonder why it took a global pandemic for the world to realize that humanity was already amidst a public health emergency: climate change.

COVID-19 and climate change both require our immediate attention. Kai Chan, a sustainability scientist at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, and Stephen Sheppard, a member of the UBC Faculty of Forestry discussed the similarities between the current COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. Chan explained, “COVID-19 is a fast-spreading crisis, whereas climate change is a slow-burning one. On one hand, every jurisdiction has a direct incentive to take strong and immediate action to contain COVID-19 within their borders, whereas climate change is a tragedy of the commons. Thus, with climate change many nations strive to continue benefiting from fossil fuels as long as possible, relying on other nations to take action”. Sheppard concluded, “Both have major impacts on our health, require careful and timely pre-planning to avoid the worst impacts, and require substantial changes in our habits and expectations. However, they both can yield very positive outcomes in terms of neighborhood resilience and cohesion, clean air, quieter streets, reduced dependency on external resources and long supply lines. They both also depend on social mobilization of all citizens to change their ways (UBC News)”.

The world is scrambling to deal with the massive disruption of the pandemic. Chan states the pandemic “dwarfs the inconveniences that strong climate action would cause” (UBC News). Humankind has a unique opportunity to make a drastic shift in common mindset. The government is currently working on rebuilding our communities and economies with new stimulus spending and policies. New policies and efforts should focus on building a sustainable future rather than reverting to prior unsustainable practices. A transition to clean energy would generate twice as many jobs per pound of government expenditure as fossil fuel projects around the world (World Economic Situation and Prospects 2020).

A lot of individuals are waiting to see if stimulus efforts are going to help or hurt the economy. Many economists are describing these stimulus checks as “windows of opportunity”. Christiana Figueres, a former U.N. climate chief who co-founded Global Optimism, has called stimulus spending “the last opportunity” to achieve the goals of the 2015 Paris climate accord. These stimulus packages represent a once in a lifetime opportunity to direct the world onto a low-emission path. Backing projects such as renewables, electric vehicles, and efficient infrastructure to reduce heat-trapping carbon emissions would be optimal.

Advocates of these sustainable initiatives are now lobbying governments to pivot, encouraged by early support for some climate-friendly stimulus in Germany, France and South Korea. In the United States, the Trump administration has granted relief to oil and gas companies and cut back on crucial environmental regulations rather than requiring these heavy emitting sectors to reduce their carbon footprint. Meanwhile, Europe has emerged as the leader in green recovery policies, so far devoting 0.31% of the bloc’s GDP to some form of green spending (Reuters). Green economy recovery packages for COVID-19 may hold the solutions to many of our problems. These projects will cut greenhouse gas emissions as well as stimulate economic growth, delivering higher returns on government spending as compared to conventional stimulus spending.

The world needs to unite in the investment in a clean energy transition and circular economy. COVID-19 has brought a wave of devastation to communities globally and according to Mark Paul, an economist at The New College of Florida, “there will be a need for a sustained stimulus for at least two or three years. It’s not one shot and done”. It's time to start investing in methods of production that aren’t contributing to climate change.