Given the fact that the Coronavirus (Covid-19) and its implications are dominating not only the news but the daily lives of nearly the whole globe, it is unsurprising that many have been thinking about the consequences of the coronavirus on climate action.
On the one hand, one sees perspectives that seem to celebrate the global lockdown as a win for nature and climate, pointing out the huge reductions in pollution and greenhouse gases resulting from large-scale economic shutdowns and lifestyle changes. Journalists have reported on the return of clear water and fish to the canals in Venice. Maps from NASA show levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution (NO2) that are 10-30% lower than during the same period last year. One scientist has predicted that the reductions in air pollution resulting from the reduced industrial and other economic activity in China could actually save more lives than were lost in that region to the Coronavirus.
Nothing to celebrate
Nonetheless, our humanity tells us that we have nothing to celebrate when a pandemic kills hundreds of thousands of people. The goal of taking action on climate change should be to reduce human suffering and save lives; economic collapse and disease are not viable climate mitigation strategies. In practical terms, the current dip in emissions is unlikely to be sustained, and an economic recession endangers investments in clean energy and makes it more difficult to secure financing for other climate mitigation and adaptation projects.
And yet this whole conversation is missing the bigger picture: the climate crisis is a health crisis. The health impacts of climate change are profound and far-reaching: from endangering food security to enabling the spread of mosquito and other vector-borne diseases to increased deaths due to more frequent and severe heatwaves - these effects are well known within the scientific community, and yet health has not yet made its way into the center of climate politics or policies. Climate experts continue to present the health and climate agendas as if they were not part of the same thing. Why do we combat the climate crisis in the first place? Isn’t it to safeguard our lives on a healthy planet?
Climate and health: two sides of the same coin
Climate emergency and health emergency are two sides of the same coin. The risks of ignoring these links are too high. This pandemic offers us a painful but important opportunity to re-design our social and economic systems based on what really matters: planetary health. This means embracing the fact that the health of people and the health of the planet are inextricably intertwined; that our natural ecosystems are the most essential elements supporting life on this planet.
This pandemic will pass. But others will come. As Yuval Noah Harari put it, “Coronavirus is a major test of citizenship”. Every individual can make a difference but we will need a global action plan. Where our governments channel resources in response to this pandemic and beyond will be the biggest determining factor in our ability to shape the future based on what really matters. Concrete suggestions are already being made: the head of the International Energy Agency (IEA) proposed, for instance, that subsidies which are still going to the fossil fuel industry could be redirected to healthcare spending. This pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of our economic systems; perhaps this can be transformed into a call for a more sustainable way of living. A collective realization that good health is the foundation for all we do - including all economic activity- would be a positive outcome of this tragic health crisis.