Credit: Karsten Wurth
As the world reckons with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, now is the time to think about how leaders can better prepare for and respond to the next global crisis. Just as the United Nations was established after World War II, history has demonstrated that major crises can force us to build back better.
Experts have suggested that the loss of life and economic misery caused by COVID-19 are on par with what we can expect if we do not reduce the world’s carbon emissions. They have also drawn parallels between the response to the pandemic and global environmental policy.
It’s in the same vein that lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic can help decision-makers tackle the climate crisis.
We Need to Listen to Science and Make Risk-Informed Decisions
For years, scientists and global health experts have warned the world about the inevitability of a viral pandemic similar to the 1918 influenza epidemic (‘Spanish flu’). In 2006, the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Report warned that a “lethal flu, its spread facilitated by global travel patterns and uncontained by insufficient warning systems, would present an acute threat”, and ‘infectious diseases’ has been among the top 10 global risks by impact list in the report since 2018.
Why is it, then, that governments seemed ill-prepared and ill-equipped to handle such a threat when it arose, despite many years of warnings?
Climate scientists would tell you that this story sounds all too familiar. As far back as 1979, scientists from 50 nations met at the first World Climate Conference in Geneva and agreed that urgent action was necessary to respond to alarming climate change trends.
Yet, greenhouse gas emissions are still rapidly rising, with increasingly damaging effects on our planet and people. Likewise, COVID-19 has clearly illustrated the consequences when political leaders do not heed scientists’ warnings. Their failure to take the necessary steps to protect their citizens in the early stages of the pandemic has only reaffirmed the importance of proactive action to address collective risks.
The key is to build resilience through preemptive risk mitigation and adaption to minimise future impacts and protect lives and livelihoods. While it’s difficult to predict when and where pandemics will originate and how they will manifest, we already know the key drivers and consequences of climate change, and therefore can start mitigating risks immediately.
We Need a Coordinated, Inclusive Systems Approach to Build Resilience
2021 is the year for responding to three overlapping crises – a global pandemic, a weakened global economy and rising carbon emissions. Each of these crises pose serious threats, and their intersection causes more compounded risks – both exposing and worsening inequalities – but also presents substantial opportunities to build back better.
The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has increased understanding and awareness of the links between human, animal, and environmental health, and the economy. In recognising the interconnectedness of underlying social, environmental, and economic systems, governments must continue to endorse integrated planning approaches, collaborate across sectors, agencies, stakeholders and disciplines, and forge meaningful partnerships to enable a green COVID-19 recovery.
To overcome the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and to build social, environmental, and economic resilience in an equitable and inclusive way, we need to shift from linear solutions that solve one problem at a time to more systemic solutions that address multiple issues simultaneously. This will require public-private-community collaboration to pave the way for an increase in economic activity while also improving social and environmental conditions.
"Never waste a good crisis,” says Saskia Reus-Makkink, Palladium’s Nature-Based Solutions Strategy Lead.
“This is the opportunity to build more equal, inclusive, and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient to face pandemics, climate change and other global challenges that we'll face. Climate change and biodiversity loss could cause social and economic damages far larger than those caused by COVID-19” notes Reus-Makkink.
To enable the adaptive capacity of people and ecosystems, especially the most vulnerable, there’s a need to adopt the notion that economies and wellbeing are embedded in, and rely on, healthy ecosystems.
Reus-Makkink adds that forthcoming policies and stimulus to recover the economy should focus on ‘Building Back Better’, creating new sustainable jobs and triggering investments to scale innovative solutions with impact on climate, nature, and people.
“The opportunity to redesign the economy and society for a better future is now."
We need Public, Private, Collective and Individual Action
The pressing need to develop a COVID-19 vaccine resulted in a rare collaboration between governments, scientists, and drug manufacturers. Public and private funds poured into vaccine development, pushing aside the usual financial concerns facing pharmaceutical companies. Governments committed billions to developing COVID-19 vaccines and the infrastructure to produce them at scale and did so with record-breaking speed.
The same kind of collaborative urgency is needed to decarbonise the economy quickly enough to mitigate climate change’s negative impacts. Governments must lead so that the private sector and individual citizens can follow, as our economic system currently does not adequately price economic damage or fossil fuel use. The pace of climate change means that we simply cannot leave the fate of our planet and our people up to either market forces and profit motives or by asking individuals to make alternative behaviour changes without support to reduce cost or improve convenience.
More public intervention is needed to provide the supporting policies, structures and smart regulatory frameworks that tell the private sector that we want a greener future, allow for the faster growth of new and cheaper green products and technologies, and to de-risk green investments to catalyse further private investment.
Governments need to end the massive subsidies for fossil fuels and other industries that pollute and degrade the environment, and instead tax the use of resources that do so, value nature in addition to GDP when calculating economic success and ensure that clean sources of energy are priced accessibly so that low- and middle-income countries can buy them.
Without swift and substantial policy action, the goal of reaching net-zero by 2050 will be beyond reach.
Terry Green, Palladium Director of Climate, Environment and Natural Resources notes that the time to strike is now. “Without faster change, bolder transitions and higher ambitions, we’re all in trouble,” warns Green.
The big lesson of the COVID-19 response is that it’s demonstrated that governments, private sector and other stakeholders can quickly work together to find solutions to urgent global problems. We need to work systemically and collaboratively to achieve more rapid transformational changes and tip the scales towards a greener, fairer, more resilient world.
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