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What does COVID-19 mean for the climate change battle?

With the COVID-19 pandemic dominating the news and financial agenda, you could be forgiven for thinking that the most pressing issue at the start of the year, is off the corporate agenda. Fortunately, that seems not to be the case. Additionally, two new research reports published this week take a step back and examine exactly what the impact of COVID-19 will be on the push towards sustainability.

In his report ‘Corona crisis and climate change: New technology is what we need’,  Eric Heymann at Deutsche Bank Research writes that, while a comparison between the coronavirus response and the measures against climate change makes sense, as there are some similarities, there are also major differences between the two issues. Heymann says that the response to the pandemic does hold a number of lessons for climate policy.

Key characteristics: Development over time, regional spread and causes

The coronavirus pandemic is obviously an acute threat. The virus may cause a deadly illness. Older people and people with certain pre-existing conditions are particularly susceptible. In this sense, the virus has a selective impact. If and wherever healthcare systems were or are overloaded, the corona crisis certainly causes emergencies. In contrast, the question how acute the problem of climate change is, in some quarters at least, up for debate. The term “climate emergency”, which some activists use, indicates urgency. It is true that climate change is certainly a less acute issue than the coronavirus pandemic. Climate change has a selective impact, too; at this point in time, it tends to affect mainly those for whom adapting to it is more difficult.

Both the coronavirus and climate change are global phenomena. The etymology of the term “pandemic” already suggests that “everybody” (“pan” means “all” in Greek) is affected. Turning to climate change, the geographical source of greenhouse gas emissions is quite unimportant. Nevertheless, Heymann notes that there is a significant difference between the two problems. Individual countries can take national measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus: they can simply close their borders. While stopping international travel is certainly not an adequate medium to long-term solution, it helps to contain new infections in the short run and is effective even without co-operation from other countries. In contrast, national measures are largely ineffective in the fight against climate change if the rest of the world does not pursue ambitious goals as well. The contribution of national climate-protection policies becomes more insignificant if a country has only a small share in global greenhouse gas emissions. The difference becomes obvious when we look at an example of a small island state: External border closures would help to eliminate the coronavirus in the country within a short time. However, such a country is clearly not in a position to make a major contribution to climate protection.

Turning to look at the causes of the two problems, climate change is to a large extent caused by human activities. While the exact contribution of these activities is unclear, it seems clear that burning fossil fuels is a major cause of climate change. Heymann writes that, from an economist’s vantage point, climate change is a global negative external effect. The negative external impact of greenhouse gas emissions which are behind humanity’s contribution to climate change is not (adequately) priced in. In contrast, the link between the coronavirus pandemic and human activities is by far less obvious. One can argue that, if mankind increasingly encroaches upon the habitat of wild animals, the probability increases that viruses spread from animals to people. However, such events have regularly taken place over time, even when considerably fewer people lived on earth.

Government measures and their acceptance

Environmental economics and common sense alike suggest that an acute threat requires comprehensive countermeasures. The corona crisis is a good example of this. Governments around the world are relying on far-reaching command and control regulation measures, including bans on a number of economic and private activities. Many countries have entered an economic and social lockdown. Regulatory law has a major disadvantage, however: it tends to lead to significant economic losses and costs. In order to mitigate the economic impact of the lockdown, countries have adopted comprehensive subsidies and aid programmes for the affected sectors and private households of their economies. These measures constitute the second line of the response to the corona crisis. Quite apart from the economic losses, the government measures severely interfere with basic human rights and people’s quality of life. For now, most people accept and comply with the restrictions. However, nobody can really believe that people will continue to do so indefinitely. Policymakers regularly underline that the current situation, with all its constraints, is highly exceptional.

Climate protection policy uses a mix of different instruments. In this area, too, command and control regulations (obligations, bans, quotas, caps etc.) play a significant role. Many technologies are subsidised; Heymann identifies renewables as one clear example of this. At the same time, and alongside regulatory law, policymakers use market-based instruments, such as energy or carbon taxes or emissions trading. These tools aim to internalise the negative impact of greenhouse gas emissions. While it is quite possible to “put a price” on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, it is no viable idea to put a price on the coronavirus.

Right now, climate protection measures are widely accepted in many countries. In fact, survey participants often say that they would support stricter climate protection policies. One reason for the high degree of acceptance is certainly that the costs of climate protection measures are not very transparent and spread across a long period of time. People bear them by paying higher prices for everyday goods or paying taxes (or not benefiting from tax cuts). Moreover, climate policy has only small effects on everyday life so far. As long as people can afford it, they can travel without restrictions, live in large flats or houses and heat them as they like, use more and more electronic consumer goods, surf the internet at will, download films and music, buy any car they like, eat meat and tropical fruit etc. However, even as people say in surveys that they are in favour of climate protection they are often less willing to shoulder (considerably) higher costs for this goal.

New technology and adaptation promise better success than sacrifices

The coronavirus crisis has shown that people accept major restrictions laid down in regulatory law if there is an acute threat. At the same time, the global debate about easing the lockdown also shows that acceptance of such measures wanes over time as the threat recedes. Heymann’s report does not believe that people in western democracies will accept similar constraints of everyday life for climate protection purposes in the coming years. First, the threat perceived at the individual level is not sufficiently acute, second, people feel they can adapt to climate change over time and to a certain extent, and third, every citizen and even every country can make only a small contribution to climate protection. Like it or not, but most people simply will not be willing to make sacrifices if others do not.

There is the option of relying on higher carbon prices (instead of regulatory law) to make people behave in a more climate-friendly way. Market-based instruments are indeed more efficient and effective (both in economic and ecological terms) than either regulatory law or technology-specific subsidies. In fact, this seems to be the only realistic way to achieve the ambitious long-term climate targets, Heymann argues. However, if carbon prices rise above a certain level and people can no longer afford everyday conveniences (such as travelling), majorities in western democracies may gradually shift. Heymann writes that there is a significant risk that excessive climate protection measures (implemented either via energy and carbon prices or via regulatory law) may strengthen parties on the political margins.

The corona crisis has also shown that millions of jobs hinge on everyday activities and luxuries that are currently out of bounds and which may appear superfluous at first sight. Due to its significant economic impact, it is impossible to fight the corona crisis simply by a continued lockdown of the economy. In the long run, new technologies are the only option. In the coronavirus context, these new technologies take the form of efficient drugs and vaccines, which are currently being researched around the world. In the meantime, we can only try to contain the virus by ensuring good hygiene, relying on social distancing etc. In addition, we need to adapt to the virus.

In some respects, the corona crisis is a blueprint for climate protection policy, Heymann concludes. In that area, too, better technologies than those available today are needed. We need high-performance, low-carbon, controllable and cheap sources of energy that permit climate-friendly growth. Heymann notes that this is what the world’s best minds should focus on in the coming years. Most people will be unwilling to accept persistent, massive growth losses and/or restrictions on individual consumption and production choices for climate reasons in the long run; moreover, the costs would be extremely high. Once again, as long as the necessary technology is not available, we will have to try and slow down climate change by using the tools available today. And, of course, some adaptation to climate change will be necessary.

Implications of COVID-19 for the environment

Elsewhere this week, the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) released its position paper on the spread of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) and associated global environmental challenges, based on the results of its analysis to date. In the paper, IGES identifies key issues through the lens of the environment and sustainability, and recognises that the COVID-19 pandemic is closely related to - and extends beyond - these issues, and cannot be left unaddressed.

Effective responses and recovery plans will therefore need to take into account the pandemic’s multiple dimensions, as well as its deep roots in environmental stresses and global mobility. The recovery process serves as a critical occasion to materialise much-needed transformative change toward a sustainable society. Some solutions will be needed in the immediate future while others will be important over the longer term. As such, IGES has conducted this preliminary analysis to understand the environmental and sustainability challenges associated with the crisis, and their potential solutions, by categorising core issues requiring attention in the “short-term”, “medium-term”, and “long-term”.

Short-term measures: addressing urgent concerns

Management of medical waste

Healthcare facilities have experienced an explosion in the use of specific kinds of medical supplies, including disposable masks and gloves, which has caused a rapid increase in medical waste. In collaboration with relevant UN and other organisations, IGES will begin analysing the management of medical waste in selected developing countries in Asia, identifying challenges and proposing solutions.

Managing the adverse impacts of air pollution

In locations with high levels of air pollution, the proportion of residents suffering from respiratory illnesses is high. Individuals infected with COVID-19 are thus likely to be at higher risk for serious illness and premature death. It is true that COVID-19 emergency lockdowns and stay-at-home restrictions have made ambient air quality in many Asian and other cities significantly better. Therefore, it is important to identify sustainable solutions that prevent pollution levels from rebounding or reaching higher levels after the crisis subsides. A possible important area for intervention could be the transport sector, particularly in large cities in Asia, as some urban areas have begun to promote non-motorised transport (particularly cycling and walking) and alternative working arrangements.

Uptake of sustainable workstyles and lifestyles

Remote work is being rapidly introduced across the world. It is also recommended that social engagements take place by the same means, leading to substantial changes in lifestyles as well as workstyles. Such practices may improve not only the environment but also work-life balance, and should be maintained to the extent possible, even after the emergency period ends. IGES published the “1.5-Degree Lifestyles: Targets and options for reducing lifestyle carbon footprints” report in February 2019. Currently, this research is in its second phase, where it is being expanded to cover additional countries (including developing countries). The author team is also beginning to consider how to cover COVID-19’s effects on lifestyles in the research. Moreover, IGES is examining, together with partners, the possibility of promoting lifestyle changes that consider COVID-19 in some of their projects.

Medium-term measures: paving the way for post-crisis green recovery

Promotion of green recovery

The IGES paper says it is important to take actions that build a society more adept at managing similar crises in the future, i.e. “build back better” after the crisis. Going forward, it will be important that each country’s large-scale economic measures contribute to building a more sustainable, resilient and inclusive society in the future (i.e. the implementation of a “global” Green New Deal). IGES plans to analyse the extent to which Japan’s emergency economic measures incorporate environmental measures (e.g. towards RE100). Moreover, through collaboration with various international partners, IGES is monitoring how each country’s economic recovery plan will incorporate the concept of green recovery, and is evaluating these policies.

Long-term measures: creating a resilient and sustainable society

Sustainable and integrated approaches

The promotion of regional circulating and ecological spheres (Regional-CES), which aim for holistic sustainable development at the regional level through integrated efforts toward achieving diverse, social, economic and environmental targets, is also seen as a reasonable way forward in the long term. IGES is planning to launch a case study on the application of the Regional-CES concept in two regions in Asia together with a number of partner institutes. One proposed research project on Regional-CES and pandemic response may focus on understanding urban-rural interdependency patterns in the event of pandemics, focusing on resource flows, economic recovery and collective resilience.

Sound urban environmental measures in developing countries

The urban dimension and root causes of pandemics are multiple, including the fact that essential daily activities, such as commuting and shopping, are carried out in relatively congested spaces, that cities confront all sorts of environmental challenges which are associated with unsustainable production and consumption patterns, and that cities are primary sources of environmental pollution, which worsens the pre-existing health conditions of their inhabitants. In addition, municipal waste streams in cities will experience a surge in the volume of disposables, increases in use of single-use plastic bags, containers and utensils, and disruption of normal waste management systems due to safety concerns and lockdowns. Through international cooperation, IGES, with its partners, may integrate pandemic management as part of environmental sustainability and urban resilience, and has initiated discussions on this issue with local governments in several Southeast Asian countries.

Measures for climate adaptation planning

Ecosystems are changing dramatically due to climate change. These changes expand transition zones where species from different habitats interact and thereby elevate the risk of pathogen spillover. In other words, it is fully conceivable that climate change can become an indirect factor contributing to the rise in frequency of infectious diseases like COVID-19. Therefore, as illustrated by this current crisis, it is necessary to consider infectious disease risk as another important impact of climate change. IGES, in full consultation with relevant partners, could consider including infectious disease risk as one point of focus for the upcoming launch of a platform for climate change adaptation in Asia. IGES is considering a study on the implications of COVID-19 for resilience in developing countries.

Measures to control global risks

It has again been proven that increasingly globalised risks such as this pandemic can result in massive socio-economic impacts, such as disruptions of global supply chains and the collapse of global tourism. Policies and measures, both international and domestic, are therefore considered necessary to make supply chains more sustainable and resilient. Additionally, policies and practices to promote sustainable tourism worldwide should be substantially strengthened. IGES could consider research on improved global governance to address globalised risks effectively, in collaboration with domestic and international partners.


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