Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Can Covid-19 response be a model for climate action?

Mass behaviour change, policies guided by science, acting for the greater good: just what the climate crisis needs.

An empty street in San Francisco, 25 April (Liu Guanguan/China News Service via Getty Images)
An empty street in San Francisco, 25 April (Liu Guanguan/China News Service via Getty Images)
Published 11 May 2020 

In 2020, the world will see the largest annual drop in carbon dioxide emissions in history. The havoc wreaked by the coronavirus and its accompanying lockdowns has seen fleets of planes grounded and factories shudder to a halt. Levels of mobility in the world’s largest cities have fallen below 10% of usual traffic. The International Energy Agency predicts that Covid-19 could wipe out international demand for coal, oil, and gas, with only renewable energy showing resilience.

The preliminary data from some of the world’s biggest economies shows that global emissions are in for a sharp, if temporary, decline. Early numbers from Europe suggest that the continent could see a 24% drop in EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) emissions for the whole year. Global emissions will likely only fall by 5% – a reminder that most of the world’s emissions do not come from transportation.

But economies around the world are lifting their lockdowns. China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, saw a 25% decrease in emissions over its four-week lockdown. Factories in China are back online, and as in previous economic disruptions, stimulus packages and increased targets could outweigh the short-term impacts on energy and emissions.

With a few notable exceptions, most politicians and leaders are engaging in informed, rigorous discourse based on scientific advice. This is precisely the kind of discourse the climate crisis has lacked for so long.

Publics recognise the challenge ahead. In China, 87% say that climate change is as serious a crisis as Covid-19 in the long term. While the number in Australia is much lower, the majority – 59% – agree. Given the significant personal and economic sacrifices many publics have made to combat Covid-19, will these concerns finally translate into real progress in addressing climate change, once the current crisis has subsided?

The prospects look good. Covid-19 has put science front and centre. With a few notable exceptions, most politicians and leaders are engaging in informed, rigorous discourse based on scientific advice – whether about sending children to school or the need for onerous social-distancing guidelines. This is precisely the kind of discourse the climate crisis has lacked for so long – an ability to make effective socioeconomic policy arguments on the basis of sound scientific modeling.

And COVID-19 has been met with a resurgence in bipartisanship and political function in many parts of the world, the likes of which haven’t been seen in decades. There are conservative governments instituting utilitarian, Keynesian economic measures that social democrats like Bernie Sanders are praising. Spending bills of historic proportions are passing through legislatures as if they were uncontentious, everyday appropriation bills.

Finally, this pandemic has energised society into acting with consideration for greater public good. Despite the tragic but relatively low numbers of infections and deaths in Australia, the public has galvanised to comply with otherwise illiberal stay-at-home orders, out of recognition for public good.

Science, bipartisanship, and public will: we’re going to need all three to crest the climate crisis. It will need deep, complex engagement with genuinely difficult policy decisions based off rigorous scientific advice, paired with commitments from all political camps to rise above meaningless “gotcha” point-scoring, and acceptance from all members of society to incur relatively small costs today to avoid far greater ones tomorrow.

However, as has been the case in the past few years, this may be too much to ask in a post-coronavirus world. The 1918 flu pandemic has undoubtedly been the most frequently used historical analogy this year. However, it did not receive this much attention in its immediate aftermath. Gina Kolata, in Flu, writes, “… the flu was expunged from newspapers, magazines, textbooks, and society’s collective memory. … the epidemic simply was so dreadful and so rolled up in people’s minds with the horrors of the war that most people did not want to think about it or write about it once the terrible year of 1918 was over.”

It is entirely possible that after the present pandemic is over, society will want to forget about it as quickly as possible. It is a perfectly understandable reaction. Already, a healthy appetite for escapism exists to distract us from the banality of every day.

So we may forget the overriding public good that we are all so diligently considering in our day-to-day behaviours. There may be antipathy towards wide-scale social mobilisation or aversion to governments calling upon society to incur even more costs for greater public good.

Furthermore, the low price of fossil fuels may see countries revert to less sustainable methods of energy generation to jump-start their economies, relegating the climate crisis to the bench in the name of economic restoration.

Nonetheless, Covid-19 will likely lead to permanent changes, whether in tax policy, the arts industry or the nature of work. Will the post-Covid world see our rekindled respect for scientific fact, bipartisanship, and a more robust social contract help us confront climate change? Or will crippling economic burdens and hard borders see more isolationism and environmental destruction for short-term economic benefit?

Some governments are already flagging the need to alter environmental standards to boost economic activity. But business groups are suggesting that the rebuilding of virus-rattled economies can be done hand-in-hand with the transition to net-zero emissions. Perhaps climate policy – historically relegated to the “too-hard” basket – stands a chance in the new world.

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