Just when it seemed like things couldn’t get much worse for multilateralism (short of another world war), they did. The unleashing of a tiny, untidy jumble of RNA bound together with soap-soluble fat on the international scene has brought mighty economies to a halt. It has affected the lives of billions in ways that, just weeks ago, were unimaginable. We are only beginning to understand how this latest calamitous episode in our global village will affect efforts to address that other undeclared pandemic, climate change.
Some of the immediate impacts of the coronavirus on climate change are plain to see. Greenhouse gas emissions have fallen as a result of reduced industrial activity, work commutes, and air travel – by as much as 25% in China, for instance. However, experts speculate that this fall may not be beneficial or sustained in the long term. The accompanying fall in oil prices (by more than 60% compared to the start of the year) could slow down the gains made in renewable energy and sustainable transport in recent years. There is also a danger that resources and political capital are diverted from the climate change and sustainable development efforts at a time when they need to be strengthened. A similar fall in emissions during the 2008 financial crisis was followed by an above-average increase as governments focussed their attention on resuscitating economies, without too much concern for climate change. Avoiding such sort-sightedness after the coronavirus crisis will be critical. The substantial benefits of reducing fossil fuel use during this period should serve as reminder and encouragement to ensure that recovery measures are “climate-aligned”, and mitigation and adaptation friendly. For instance 77,000 air pollution-related deaths were avoided during the lockdown in China, while the number of total deaths caused by the virus were below 3,500.
The virus has certainly been a lesson to governments on decision-making in the face of crisis and uncertainty – this will prove useful when dealing with the impacts of climate change. While most governments are “learning by doing” in the absence of previous scripts, an emerging headline is the need to consider the impacts of policies and decisions on poor and vulnerable communities first and foremost. Not all the individual tragedies that have unfolded in the previous days and weeks (and will now continue to unfold for some time to come) can be attributed to the virus. Many are due to inadequate consideration of the impacts of precautionary measures on the poor, the lack of adequate social safety nets, and heavy-handed and inconsiderate implementation. The current crisis can also serve as a valuable lesson on how to deal with widespread loss of jobs and livelihoods (although the loss of livelihoods is likely to be of a more permanent and severe nature in the case of climate change). Some of these impacts can still be stymied by ensuring that the needs of the poor get priority over corporate handouts in the distribution of rescue packages announced by governments.
What about longer-term impacts? The virus has been widely described as a harbinger of what climate change can unleash in the future (multiplied several times over). Will this realisation serve as a reminder of the porosity of national borders and the importance of deeper multilateralism, or push countries further towards nationalism? Ironically, while the current situation highlights like no other that no country is immune to events in other parts of the world, it could end up driving more protectionism, localisation of production, and tougher border controls. It could also hasten geopolitical change, with uncertain bearings on multilateralism. Here is a crucial difference between the coronavirus and climate change pandemics, however: while the former can possibly be reined in through isolationist measures and closing of borders (though not everyone agrees), the climate pandemic cannot. Carbon emissions, and the negative impacts caused by them, do not need to ride on warm bodies to cross national borders.
One thing is clear. This episode has shown that “disruptive” change is possible to address a global crisis. Business as usual need not always endure, and we need not limit our responses to incremental change. If this is the one lesson we take away from the crisis, it could unshackle our collective imagination (in particular, the imagination of our leaders) and free us from the self-imposed limitations that have held us back so far, resulting in an inadequate response to climate change.