Of the political issues with long-term impacts, climate change has become dominant around the world. At the same time, environmental activism has moved into the mainstream, with Greta Thunberg and others inspiring millions to protest and take action.
This is with good reason. In the last five years, global carbon emissions reached record levels, and CO2 growth rates were nearly 20% higher than in the previous five years. In 2019, climate change amplified 15 extreme weather disasters that caused at least US$1b in damage each; 7 of those cost over US$10b each.
Meanwhile, back in 2015, 197 countries signed the Paris Agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But the targets they set won’t get us anywhere close to the aim: limiting the increase in global temperature to 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Will we act to address the climate emergency or return to our high-emission habits?
More encouragingly, several key players – including China and the EU – have committed to producing net-zero emissions by 2050 or 2060.
The COVID-19 crisis offers the perfect opportunity to capitalize on these efforts by galvanizing governments into taking collective action. After all, national lockdowns have given us a tantalizing glimpse of a what a lower-emission world could look like.
The enforced pause on industrial output and travel resulted in cleaner air and water, and the lowest level of CO2 emissions in 14 years. Before the pandemic, for example, New Delhi’s air was so polluted it could be seen from space; within days of its March 2020 lockdown, air pollution had dropped by almost 60%.
The level of change needed won’t be easy to achieve
A key challenge will be managing the inherent tension between public enthusiasm for tackling climate change and the need to reboot economies that are still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. That means making the regulatory and structural changes needed to move rapidly toward net-zero emissions.
There’s also a question mark over the behavior of individuals: will people shun public transport in favor of driving to work? Will they take their long-awaited foreign holidays by plane? And will their overall consumption go back up? All these could set countries back on their previous path.
The COP26 in November, delayed a year by the crisis, will be an opportunity to unite governments and businesses around these issues and to commit to urgent global action.
Will we learn from COVID-19 or fail to prepare for future crises?
Rather than being a “black swan,” as many reported, COVID-19 was entirely predictable. Between 2011 and 2018, the WHO traced almost 1,500 “epidemic events” in 172 countries.
Many reports have since cited lessons learned from these crises and highlighted the need to prepare for future ones. And in 2019, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board followed many government, business and health leaders in warning that a pandemic was coming.
Despite this, national governments still viewed it as low risk and invested far less in measures to prepare than they spent on national defense. In 2015, the CIA estimated that military spending amounted to more than US$2t globally. But pandemics have killed many more people than war, and preparing for them costs a lot less.
Meeting the WHO’s minimum standards for pandemic preparedness would cost up to US$3.4b globally per year. That’s small change compared with Oxfam’s estimate that COVID-19 cost the global economy an extra US$11.7t in 2020. Not forgetting, of course, the huge human cost (two million lives lost so far) and the immense pressure exerted on health systems and workers around the world.