THE WORLD’S RESPONSE TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC: WHAT LESSONS FOR ADDRESSING THE CLIMATE CHANGE CRISIS?
Yakubu Aliyu Bununu, PhD
Department of Urban and Regional Planning, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria
The COVID-19 pandemic and climate change are two crises that not only resemble one another but also interact. The two care very little about international or regional borders, making both scourges that are unfolding at a global scale. Just like climate change, the virus puts poor and vulnerable populations at greater risks than the elite and call for government action at a scale never witnessed in peacetime[i]. At the same time, a point of departure between the two is that the climate crisis has been proved to have a greater impact on poor and more vulnerable countries which contribute very little in causing it. COVID-19 and climate change have also exhibited remarkable levels of interaction with one another. This remarkable level of interaction between the two crises is demonstrated in how the shutdown of most of the global economy occasioned by public health measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a considerable drop in the levels of greenhouse gas emissions between early February and mid-April 2020. It is reported that daily global greenhouse-gas emissions in early April of 2020 were 17% less than what they were in the corresponding period in 2019[ii]. The international Energy Agency projects that global industrial greenhouse-gas emissions would fall by 8% from the levels witnessed in 2019. This will be the largest annual drop since the second world war1. What this drop also reveals is that the climate crisis is much larger than previously thought and that it will take much more than abandoning airplanes, trains, automobiles and cutting industrial production (as COVID-19 forced us to) to solve. This means that even if the draconian measures taken as a response to the pandemic were to be normalized in order to address the climate crisis, the world would still be left with more than 90% of the decarbonisation in order to be on track to achieve the Paris Agreement’s most ambitious goal of keeping warming not above 1.50C of the pre-industrial revolution levels. The almost total lockdown of the global economy that caused a complete halt in travel has shown that the main culprit in climate change might actually be our individual consumption habits and lifestyles.
It is clear that COVID-19 and the climate crises are unfolding at a global and unprecedented scale bringing about huge levels of disruption that require a coordinated response by policy and decision makers, businesses and individual members of society. As they are very similar, so are they also markedly different. While the pandemic poses a direct threat to individuals and health systems, climate change on the other hand causes disruptions in and undermines broader national and human systems. Thus, COVID-19 requires responses within days and weeks, whereas reactions to climate change appear less urgent and acute. Nevertheless, the scientific evidence suggests that the impacts of climate change will worsen as the world takes longer in responding to it. Available evidence suggests that the world is indeed taking longer as many of the countries that form the Conference of Parties (COP) are on course to miss their emission reduction targets set for 2030 except if radical changes in production and consumption are introduced urgently[iii]. Therefore, humanity is today confronted with overlapping crises that require immediate societal mobilization[iv].
Just like the climate crisis has and is forecast to continue to, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a more pronounced impact on cities than rural areas. What gives cities their distinct advantages also make them highly vulnerable to disease epidemics and other natural disasters. Dense populations, frenetically paced commerce and global connections have made cities economic, political and cultural powerhouses. These have also increased their vulnerability to disease pandemics. As at 1920 – the last year of the “Spanish Flu” – 14% of the global population lived in cities. That proportion soared to an unprecedented 55% in 2018[v]. Therefore, cities are the arenas where the battles of the pandemic and the climate crisis will be won or lost.
As COVID-19 spread all over the world, city after city have experienced remarkably similar patterns of the spread of the virus and have responded with drastic but necessary measures in order to stop or at the minimum slow the spread of the virus. These measures that have now become part of everyday vocabulary include social distancing, respiratory and hand hygiene, wearing of face masks, lockdown, quarantine, contact tracing, testing and self-isolation. In some instances, the measures instituted by cities that were hit by the virus earliest served as lessons for those the virus hit later on. This was enabled by the ability to share knowledge, experiences and best practices and this helped some cities to avoid mistakes and optimise their responses to COVID-19 especially in the early stages of the pandemic. Such information diffusion has proved invaluable in enabling metropolitan areas to explore the adoption of successful strategies that were implemented by other cities.
However, the response to covid19 has varied from city to city. while it has been established that there is a link between high densities and fast as well as easy spread of infections, it is still a mystery to many experts why New York for instance has had more cases of infections and deaths due to COVID-19 than denser, more populated cities like Mani la, Lagos and Nairobi with much poorer access to quality health care for residents. These cities responded to COVID-19 in ways that were very similar but different. While the more affluent cities in western Europe and the United States instituted total lockdowns, the poorer ones in Africa for instance chose to lockdown but with the modification of allowing a few days within the week for people to stock up on essentials. These measures were supported and bolstered by legislative powers that allowed national or subnational governments to essentially shut down entire cities and even countries thereby depriving people of their liberties and freedom. Interestingly, people obeyed these lockdown orders, albeit with pockets of resistance and violations in a few cities around the world especially after it had dragged on for more than eight weeks. This makes one to wonder whether such measures are feasible as part of future response to climate change or is COVID-19 considered a more existential threat?
The experts have also stated that in the absence of a vaccine or even a therapeutic treatment, the best weapon against the COVID-19 pandemic is each individual taking personal responsibility of observing public health guidelines such as wearing of masks, practicing good respiratory hygiene and social distancing. This also brings to mind how remarkably similar COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis are because it has severally been argued by experts in the field that personal responsibility especially in consumption and other lifestyle choices hold the greatest potential for reducing the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and taming global warming and climate change. Here, it is important to stress that the rich nations of the world have a responsibility of showing the rest of the world the way by reforming and transitioning their economies from their current state of fossil fuel dependency to those anchored on cleaner and renewable energy resources.
As earlier stated, COVID-19 has occasioned the shutdown of the economies of many countries and the World Bank forecast states that the global economy would experience a very deep recession that will see it shrink by up to 5.2%[vi]. As the COVID-19 lockdowns are gradually being lifted and several national economies are staggering back to life, a unique opportunity is being presented to institute government policies that will move national economies away from fossil fuels and carbon at much lower political, financial and social costs that would have been otherwise obtained. Indeed, it is the tension between politics and economics on the one hand and concerns for the environment on the other that has been blamed for lack of or very little action at addressing climate change. This tension remains even as the pandemic continues to ravage many regions of the world and may actually have been aggravated by recent actions of isolationism rather than cooperation by many of the leading countries of the world like the United States, Germany and China. At the same time, there are signs of hope. About 17 European countries have stuck together and are calling on the European Commission to make the Green Deal central in the COVID-19 economic recovery efforts2.
The COVID-19 pause and the resultant reduction in the emission of GHGs is not necessarily climate-friendly. The global community must make it so. The 2021 stock-taking meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP) should be used as an avenue not just for evaluation of the 2015 Paris Agreement but also an opportunity for raising their game in order to show that the lessons of the pandemic has catalysed them into taking more substantial actions that will lead to a breakthrough on the environment. How likely is this to happen going by the current state of global geopolitics? Where will the leadership come from considering that the United States under the Trump administration has made it abundantly clear that it is not interested in continuing with the long-established model of multilateral cooperation in global international relations? What is in no doubt however is that COVID-19 has made it abundantly clear that the foundations of our societies and their well being and prosperity are precarious. In all of this, the poorer, more vulnerable regions of the world as well as minority groups in the United States and Western Europe appear more at risk of being plunged further into poverty, disease and even death. The disasters that have been long talked about and have been the subject of fictitious movies and books can actually become reality without any prior warning, turning life upside down and destabilizing all that seemed unshakably stable. The harm to our societies from climate change may be slower in unfolding than the pandemic, but when it eventually arrives, it will most likely be more devastating and longer lasting. If there was ever a good time for the leaders of the world to demonstrate the requisite courage in averting the climate disaster, that time is now as they may never have a more attentive audience should this opportunity be missed.
[iii] Bununu, Y.A. (2020). Domestic Material Consumption, Our Modern Economies, Lifestyles and Environmental Sustainability. In: Leal Wet al (eds) Sustainable cities and communities, encyclopedia of the UN sustainable development goals. Springer Nature Switzerland AG, Gewerbestrasse, Cham, Switzerland.
[vi] The World Bank (2020). The Global Economic Outlook During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Changed World. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2020/06/08/the-global-economic-outlook-during-the-covid-19-pandemic-a-changed-world, retrieved 12.06.20.
No 9 – This blog article is written under the auspices of the British Academy supported Critical Thinking and Writing Workshop for Urban Studies Researchers in Nigeria.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development or the University of Lagos, Nigeria.