As life takes on an unfamiliar shape during lockdown, many media outlets are quick to draw parallels between life under coronavirus and the effects of unchecked climate change. Scientists have long forecasted that food shortages and economic downturn could accompany climate change, should it continue at its current rate.
While both the coronavirus and climate change are natural phenomenon, their root is human activity. In fact, the two even share common causes. The human population is spreading into increasingly wild areas, due to over-population, over-farming, and deforestation: all causes of climate change. When human life is closer than it should be to the wild, this also increases the spread of infectious diseases. Over 75% of infectious diseases emerge from the wild.
However, there is a key difference between coronavirus and the climate crisis. Thanks to decisive, state-enforced action, scientists and leaders agree that we will overcome coronavirus eventually – even if we don’t know when. The same cannot be said of climate change. While this threat is less immediate, it remains, with no clear strategy past it.
When it comes to fighting climate change, we can learn a lot by examining how the human and natural worlds have negotiated coronavirus.
Nature is winning vs coronavirus
During this challenging time, we’d like to start by focusing on the positives. With humans on home lockdown, nature has already started to reclaim newly vacant spaces.
In the town of Llandudno, Wales, mountain goats have moved into the now quiet streets. In Italy, the water quality has improved greatly, and there are now dolphins inhabiting the usually busy harbours.
Across Europe, levels of air pollution have fallen dramatically, due to a 60% reduction in car journeys during lockdown. As well as being harmful to health, pollution in the atmosphere can also damage the ozone layer and contribute to climate change.
Dr Phillip Williamson, a professor at the University of East Anglia, is positive about this reduction in emissions. He estimates that this provides the world with another year or two to “avoid a climate catastrophe”.
As ever, we urge against too much optimism in the climate change fight: we cannot be complacent.
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It is also likely that emissions and air pollution will bounce back quickly after the lockdown ends. There may even be more: following the 2008 financial crisis, emissions rose by 5% due to government stimulated booms in production.
Fighting climate change and decarbonising society is an expensive battle. If the fight against coronavirus depletes national budgets, there will be less to invest in a greener future. The Guardian reports that coronavirus could cost the global economy $1.1tn in lost income, alone.
There are also potential challenges ahead for the renewables industry. In uncertain times, businesses are less adventurous with their spending, and may feel less inclined to invest in renewables. Many solar projects are on pause due to the lockdown, and there may be temporary supply chain disruption.
When the world emerges at the other end of the coronavirus pandemic, climate change will still be there. But we hope the world can take valuable lessons learned now and apply them in the fight against global warming. Perhaps we’ll all take the climate threat a lot more seriously, now we know first-hand what a threat to society looks and feels like.
There are some coronavirus habits we hope will continue: rethinking our attitudes towards food. Over the last few weeks, the Royal Horticultural Society and National Vegetable Society have reported an increase in people growing vegetables at home. This is great for the environment, as it means zero food miles and no C02 emissions. We’re also seeing people become more appreciative of nature in their local areas.
Like coronavirus, Governments must take strong decisive action on climate change in order to stop it in its tracks. While communities have been pulling together to fight the virus, the direction is set from above. So far, climate change has mostly been tackled from the bottom: by grassroots movements, and dedicated individuals and businesses.
While nobody wants heavy-handed state intervention in order to tackle climate change, government and local authorities can, and should, do more. If businesses are less inclined to invest in renewables due to economic uncertainty, green options should be incentivised and subsidised. Authorities should lead by example, embracing renewables for their facilities, and encouraging it among the public sector.
We’re heartened to see that several local authorities are already taking steps in the right direction. The Liverpool City Region has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2040, and Eastleigh Borough Council aims to ensure its own operations and functions achieve carbon neutrality by 2025. For local authorities keen to do more, Friends of The Earth has some great resources that can help. In our opinion, the increased use of renewables is imperative here.
The global response to coronavirus gives us hope. It shows that great things are possible when we pull together. But we cannot wait until the climate change crisis reaches pandemic-level severity. By then, it’ll be too late.