The deep social and economic impacts of COVID-19 will be felt long after we emerge from the health crisis. The question is how we will emerge: having “only” vanquished a virus pandemic or having used the financial restart measures to also significantly advance on the synchronous climate change emergency, having created a new social and environmental contract that meets the Sustainable Development Goals. Will we dangerously return to policies, technologies, business processes, and behaviors of the past, or will we derive valuable lessons for clean long-term growth and social inclusion, making us better equipped to take the other crises in our stride?
Some have pointed to the sudden drop in greenhouse gases as the link between COVID-19 and climate change. This is a false nexus. The temporary emission reduction is caused by economic paralysis and comes at a very high cost in human lives and livelihoods. The response to climate change has to be radically different.
In just a few short months the health crisis has already provided valuable insights applicable to the climate change crisis. We have learned that global challenges are in fact global, as they stop at no border and spare no geography. We have learned that global challenges require both governmental policy measures and individual behavioral changes and that both can be enacted quickly. We have relearned that it is best to prevent rather than to cure, and to do so with measures based on science rather than fantasy. Finally, we have learned that no one is safe until we are all safe.
We are all in this together, and there is an urgent need for building community and collaborating across governments, corporations, the financial sector, and civil society.
There are, of course, major differences between the two emergencies. Coronavirus is an acute challenge that sprang out of nowhere, resulting in understandable mass panic. The proverbial frog was suddenly dropped into the boiling water. Governments reacted to the imminent emergency swiftly and decisively. Conversely, climate change is a chronic threat, the mother of all risks, about which we have had decades of scientific warnings and ample destructive evidence.
The threat has been with us for so long that it has taken on the characteristics of the unaware frog swimming in water that is warming. Unconscious of the gravity of the situation, our responses have been insufficient to control the increasing global temperatures. We are perilously close to irreversible tipping points in nature, after which disastrous feedback loops kick in. The health crisis is a bitter foretaste of what climate change might bring: massive social breakdown, permanent poverty, and economic devastation for decades to come. Having experienced the social and economic trauma of the health crisis, we should decide not to tempt our fate any further.
We did not ask for these crises to converge upon us, but they have. In theory we could deal with each of them separately, or sequentially. But that makes no sense, and addressing one while ignoring the other would be disastrous. We must address them both in consonance with each other.
The first task of governments now is a targeted medical response, as well as tending to urgent social protection needs: home, food, water, and daily income. As a second step, governments need to carefully design both the monetary stimulus and the policy measures that will be forthcoming to get the economy moving again. In particular, the sheer scale of the monetary stimulus means that it will either completely undermine or significantly accelerate the world’s efforts to decarbonize.
We will have the biggest influx of cash into the economy since the financial crisis of 2008, and perhaps even greater. It will set the contours of the economy for years to come, and it will come exactly at the start of the decade in which emissions need to start their descent in order to reach a 50 percent reduction by 2030. There has never been a more critical moment to set the blueprint for a low-carbon, socially inclusive future.
We need a mindful reset of the economy. If policy and monetary responses to the pandemic in the coming weeks favor high-carbon assets and industries that continue to pollute the atmosphere, we will emerge from the human health crisis only to find ourselves condemned to a future of ever-increasing infrastructure and habitat destruction, famine, disease, social disruption, violence, and mass migrations. On the other hand, with interest rates at an all-time low, political and financial leaders now have an unprecedented historical opportunity to ensure the recovery plan offers productivity benefits and at the same time helps to bend the curve of emissions and accelerate a thoughtful energy transition.
Carefully constructed, this will bring many derivative benefits, including more long-term stable employment, clean air and healthier cities, more effective transport, energy independence, electrification of very remote populations, more equitable economic development, and critical regeneration of degraded soils and oceans.
If we do this right, we will look back at 2020 as the Great Convergence, when we finally discovered how to pursue a host of sustainable development goals in consonance with each other. We have been thrown into this convergence of crises, but we can decide to combine the solutions. In the midst of one of our greatest challenges we can choose to build a better world, not only for the short term, but for the medium and long term, and for everyone.
Christiana Figueres was the executive secretary of the UN Convention on Climate Change 2010-2016, and Tom Rivett-Carnac was her political strategist. Together they founded Global Optimism Ltd., and cohost the podcast Outrage and Optimism. They are coauthors of the recently published book The Future We Choose.