Coronavirus and Climate Change: Two Exigencies, One stone?

Amidst a growing global death toll, strict social isolation measures and grave economic implicationswrought by the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the planet Earth has emerged as an unexpected beneficiary.With reduced traffic levels (35% in New York alone), drastic drops in energy use (25% in China) and significant fall in industrial activity, both air pollution levels and carbon emissions have decreased by a considerable degree.

Not only have the canals in Venice cleared as the number of boats and tourists have considerably reduced, marine life has also returned as reported by natives who have taken to social media to share this welcome change. In most polluted countries like China, nitrogen dioxideemissions have fallen by 36% and carbon emissions by 6% of the total global emissions when compared to the statistics in the previous year during the same time-frame giving way to 21.5% more good quality air days.Emitting about 30% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, China is the world’s biggest polluter; however, a drastic reduction in its emissions as brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic has significantly reduced this number.

Both climate change and the Coronavirus pandemic are global phenomenon which do not respect territorial boundaries, require policies aimed at making socio-economic changes on the structural level and are subject to a blame game with the Global North blaming the Global South and vice versa with respect to Climate Change and the American President Donald Trump calling the pandemica Chinese virus and China firmly opposing it. Moreover, both the crises are ongoing with scientists warning people about their severity and actively aiding policymakers in their quest to find appropriate solutions with no end in sight and many unknown repercussions. Working alongside the scientists in raising awareness are notable celebrities who have either fallen victim to the virus such as Tom Hanks or are staunch advocates of climate change including Leonardo DiCaprio. Furthermore, the victims of Coronavirus and climate change are also similar as in both the cases the low-income groups are the most affected, left with little chances of recovery and adaptation. Yet, the responses of the global community towards them have been very different with great progress being made in the case of the Coronavirus and a deadlock in the case of climate change negotiations.

Emitting about 30% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, China is the world’s biggest polluter; however, a drastic reduction in its emissions as brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic has significantly reduced this number.

Today, the Coronavirus has considerably surpassed all other problems facing the world including climate change and even sceptics like President Trump have taken drastic measures to curb its spread-  declaring a national emergency. The virus’s infectious nature as it spreads through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose, visible effects such as cough, fever, difficulty breathing,a lack of vaccine or other treatments and a direct link between individual actions and their outcomes have brought about an immediate policy response at the global level along with drastic behavioural changes. Climate change, on the other hand, despite the level of threat which it poses such as water shortages, extreme weather events, loss of biodiversity etc., is subject to behavioural apathy and policy sluggishnessas its causality is unclear, its onset slow and the belief that its effects can be managed. On a scientific level, where climate change is termed as a hoax, strict protocols regarding Coronavirus are being adhered to as resolving the latter furthers certain political objectives. For instance, industries like tourism and air travel are suffering multiple losses as a consequence of the pandemic and thereby want things to return to normal as soon as possible.On the other hand, addressing the climate crisis would mean substantial political and economic backlash.

The need of the hour is to capitalise on these short-term environmental benefits so that they could be made more sustainable.

Although the Coronavirus pandemic has had a number of positive effects on the environmentso far owing to the majority being placed under lockdown, it seems that once the economies are re-stimulated to make up for the losses, carbon emissions might shoot up just like they did after the global financial crash of 2008-2009 supplemented by rapid fossil fuel usage. For instance, as no new Coronavirus cases have been reported in Chinese city Wuhan for the first time since the virus hit, factories have been reopened in the Hubei province signalling the short-term nature of such environmental improvements. The need of the hour is to capitalise on these short-term environmental benefits so that they could be made more sustainable.In doing so, the policymakers should make sure that all strategies geared towards economic growth should be assessed for environmental damage before being executed. Perhaps treating climate change as a pandemic would bring about positive outcomes as both polluters and non-polluters would realise that climate change will also have devastating consequences and the time to act is now. Just like the Coronavirus, if climate change is left unaddressed, the consequences will be the same: a rising death toll, national emergencies, drastic quarantine measures etc.

Moreover, there is also a need to set out clear precedents as to what the world should do when the crisis subsides eventually. Strictly from an environmental standpoint, social isolation has proven to be a positive step so far, as people are forced to reorder their priorities in light of the Corona outbreak. Once the Corona threat is over, will people modify their carbon intensive lifestyles to avert the risks posed by climate change? Will the masses tolerate personal sacrifices just like they did during the Corona outbreak (staying indoors and frequently washing hands) for rapid decarbonisation – the collective good? Is the Coronavirus pandemic really a prelude to what is to come in future? Only time will tell.

Zarmina Khan

Zarmina Khan

Zarmina Khan is a Research Associate at the Strategic Studies Institute, Islamabad (SSII). She has also served as a Visiting Faculty Member at the National Defence University and Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad. Her research interests include political ecology, conflict resolution, politics of Asia Pacific and foreign policy analysis.

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    Zainab Waseem Reply

    May 13, 2020 at 6:40 am

    A very powerful & thought provoking message! We need more environmental advocates to bring forth this message, this pandemic is possibly the best opportunity to buckle up for what is to come. You’ve got me thinking of writing an article myself!

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