Climate Change

The common but differentiated challenges of COVID-19 and climate change

Realities of managing 2 planet-wide crises to soon overwhelm utopian philosophy

By Tarun Gopalakrishnan
Last Updated: Thursday 26 March 2020
Photo: Pixabay

The narrative links between COVID-19 and the climate emergency are inescapable at this point. These narrative links are quite unshakeable, regardless of which way the coronavirus crisis goes — if our species fails to respond adequately, commentary will point to our planet-wide failures on climate change as a forerunner.

The more dubious narrative is if we respond to the health crisis adequately, through some mixture of social distancing, testing and drastic increase in access to critical health infrastructure (and eventually, hopefully, a vaccine).

Social distancing, inevitably, implies hits to economic activity, which implies a reduction in emissions. That risks linking a clearly bad thing (a pandemic) to a long-desired good (carbon mitigation).

Weak link between COVID-19 and emissions reduction

It was reported in January that China’s response to the crisis led to a 25 per cent reduction in carbon emissions over four weeks. Despite this, there is no serious climate change analysis that welcomes emissions reduction in the time of COVID-19, for a few reasons.

For one thing, the evidence is still mixed on the strength of the link between COVID-19 and emission reduction. The World Meteorological Organisation reports that, at several key observation sites, emissions levels for February 2020 are higher than they were in February 2019.

The current crisis could undermine the energy transition

Secondly, the economic impact is currently being projected in terms of general indicators such as gross domestic product, share prices and job losses. The differentiated impacts will take more time to become clear. As expected, oil demand and prices have taken a beating. But the global oil market is still relatively diversified compared to renewables manufacturing, which is dominated by China.

There is already acrimony over China’s handling of the early days of the COVID crisis. Sensible global leadership would demand accountability at the appropriate forums (such as the World Health Organization), without allowing the issue to escalate into a multi-front dispute. Pending longer-term government policy, however, those interested in a clean energy transition face an anxious year ahead.

A climate-conscious stimulus is common sense

The renewables industry is obviously not the only one looking to the government. Unprecedented stimulus packages are fast becoming the norm, even among policymakers previously obsessed with fiscal deficits. This has resulted in calls for a clean stimulus, and hope that current levels of stimulus will make climate proposals like the Green New Deal look more palatable.

The argument linking the two crises is on a stronger footing here. It does not presume any outcomes based on notions of an inherent link, but makes the more limited point that any economic decision-making must be conscious of the ongoing climate crisis.

It is difficult to argue, for example, that the airline industry can be allowed to go under. Yet, airlines are also uniquely opaque and territorial regarding their emissions profile, a basic pre-requisite for responsible climate policy. Can a stimulus package for the industry afford to let that situation continue?

The arguments over the COVID-19 stimulus take on even more importance considering the climate impacts of the last big stimulus in public memory. There was much optimism that the 2008-09 financial crisis had broken the link between economic growth and emissions. There was a year or two where the global economy grew marginally, while global annual emissions stayed flat.

That trend turned out to be a red herring, and emissions have climbed unrelentingly upward in the decade since, with disastrous results. The most likely aftermath of this crisis looks similar — a hunger for growth, with scarce attention paid to the longer-term consequences.

Significant danger that emissions will rebound aggressively 

China is still building coal power plants, and has humongous amounts of currently idling capacity that it will likely use to offset the current depression. Saudi Arabia is ramping up oil production during a time of falling demand and prices, escalating a price war that has economic and geo-political aims.

Other oil producing nations are likely to follow suit, reflecting a panic that the window to monetise oil reserves is narrow, but which might end up further entrenching oil in global energy systems.

Bilateral aid, which is currently the preferred route for climate finance from developed to developing countries, needs to expand to meet the COVID-19 crisis (but may not). These equally critical priorities will have to draw from the same diminishing pool. That speaks to the biggest split in the management of these crises.

A critical difference and a fundamental similarity

The argument for climate equity and justice has been built up over decades. The management of health crises has often focused on the developing world, because it is often the area of greatest need. This COVID-19 crisis has complicated the distinctions between privileged and vulnerable in unprecedented ways. There will be a temptation to pretend the distinctions no longer exist.

As we head into the fourth month of the crisis, however, the impacts on the developing world — particularly India and the continent of Africa — are likely to come into sharper focus. Even if demographics and sheer good fortune result in manageable impacts, it will not change the fundamental facts.

In public health, as in climate policy, we share a common but differentiated vulnerability, and common but differentiated responsibility.

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