Applying the lessons of COVID-19 to the climate crisis

Many European countries are beginning to ease COVID-19 restrictions in the hope that the most lethal phase of the pandemic is ending. As we begin to think about a post-pandemic world, Andrew Norton looks at the lessons from COVID-19 that can be applied to climate change.

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Insight by 
Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton was director of IIED from 2015-2022
23 February 2022
A woman carries jerrycans and tree men behind her wear masks and red vests with a red cross in the back

Floods in western Uganda in May 2020 (Photo: Climate Centre via FlickrCC BY-NC 2.0)

Indian author Arundhati Roy wrote in April 2020 “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

We can’t know this pandemic's future trajectory, but it feels like we are at an inflection point at all levels. As we start to think about passing through the gateway to new uncertain realities, it is time to think about what we have learned from the pandemic for the greatest long-term challenge of our age, the climate crisis.

How has the pandemic interacted with the climate crisis?

In the first year of the pandemic, global carbon dioxide emissions fell by 6.4% – but they bounced back to near pre-pandemic levels in 2021 (PDF). This tells us that the steep emissions cuts necessary to limit global warming to 1.5°C are not in sight.

We lost a year of climate negotiations. COP26 did take place, and progress was made in many areas, but poorer nations were disadvantaged by the move to online negotiations.

In terms of social mobilisation, lockdowns inhibited climate street protests. According to the US non-profit Freedom House, democracy was weakened in many parts of the world – with access to information, space for the media and public protest reduced.

The pandemic has had a staggering impact on global inequality. The 2022 World Inequality Report showed that this year billionaires collectively own 3.5% of global household wealth, up from just over 2% in early 2020.

Lockdowns hit the poor and vulnerable hardest: informal sector workers were denied income; women shouldered the burden of caring; people living in informal settlements had little opportunity for self-protection; and migrant workers were left without jobs or social networks. Particularly concerning, poorer children are most likely to have missed schooling, intensifying educational inequality.

Meanwhile, people in the ‘middle’, professional classes have often been able to work online – not benefiting from a boom like the super-rich but not so hard hit as others either.

Inequality between countries grew dramatically, reversing decades of convergence in GNP per capita. We are seeing a two-track economic recovery with developed economies due to return to pre-pandemic levels and developing countries seeing lower growth, rising debt and inflation.

How does this read across to the climate crisis?

Without a strong recovery from the pandemic's impacts, countries in the global South, and poor households and communities within them, will have reduced capacity to withstand climate shocks.

The rich world's failure to step up on international vaccine distribution may reduce global solidarity and trust, weakening multilateral action.

Debt burdens on poorer countries could put a brake on green transitions.

Cultural shifts may impact climate action

The pandemic has also produced climate-relevant cultural shifts:

  • Lockdowns raised awareness of the possibility of the resurgence of nature as local pollution drops, potentially strengthening support for climate action
  • The pandemic provided precedents for governments setting rules for the public good – which could enable publicly-led climate action
  • Vaccine development has shown what can be achieved when the urgency is there – could this encourage more investment in breakthrough climate technologies?
  • COVID-19 established a precedent for rapid and deep behaviour change, much of which was bottom-up, not mandated by governments, and
  • The evidence that ecological disruption and unsustainable consumption increase pandemic risk is a lesson for both publics and policymakers.

Linking economic recovery and climate action

There has been much discussion about green pandemic stimulus packages. There are challenges in making these work: they must balance short-term help with promoting effective long-term structural change. And there are tough political economy challenges – vested interests can be quick off the mark when there is cash on the table.

Stimulus finance may have unintended consequences: the Greenness of Stimulus Index shows that announced stimulus funding to date (US$3.7 trillion) will have a net negative environmental impact in 16 of the G20 group of the world's largest economies.

IIED is proposing using new debt instruments to create fiscal space for poorer countries and achieve climate and nature outcomes. Developing country debt was rising pre-pandemic, reaching $8tn in 2019 – and this has been worsened by widespread economic collapse in the wake of COVID-19, with debt servicing alone estimated to be more than US$3tn in developing countries in 2020/2021.

Debt instruments that allow countries to take climate action and count the cost of that action against their debt burdens could kick start green recovery processes.

Making urgent action more feasible

The pandemic has repeatedly demonstrated the vital importance of acting quickly – a key lesson for climate action.

Publics have grown accustomed to seeing the scientific imperatives of policy questions become the determinants of action. The notion of changing the way we live for the public good has also become 'somewhat' normalised.

At the same time, there is an ‘anti-science’ backlash, with efforts to mobilise popular sentiment against climate action building on mobilisation against pandemic control measures, including vaccines. Social mobilisation for climate action will be important in countering this.

We must focus on climate justice

The most important over-arching framework for climate action is climate justice. The pandemic provides clear pointers for focusing on justice.

Pandemic impacts and climate change could intersect to compound inequalities within and between countries. We must address this risk via urgent action on mitigation, increased finance to support resilience and addressing loss and damage.

Global challenges need global responses. Rich countries must contribute by reducing their emissions much faster than developing countries and provide adequate, accessible and high-quality climate finance. The pandemic has taught us that ‘no one is safe until everyone is safe’.

We need new approaches to financing public action. The economist Thomas Piketty famously suggested a global wealth tax. In the absence of that – and bearing in mind that the super-rich largely avoid paying much in the way of income tax – wealth taxes at the national level can at least contribute to funding domestic and international finance for climate action.

Finally, the pandemic and the climate crisis both highlight intergenerational justice. Younger people have taken hits to their lives, education and income to protect their more COVID-vulnerable elders.

Given that the younger you are, the more exposed you will be to climate crisis impacts, it is time to recognise this key element of climate justice. We must try to ensure that climate change disruption – as it grows – does not lead to irrevocably lost life opportunities for coming generations.

About the author

Andrew Norton was director of IIED from 2015-2022 

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