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Covid-19 v Climate: Learnings From An Epidemic

As COVID-19 continues its deadly sweep across the globe, we explore how the epidemic has unintentionally proven that we can dramatically decrease pollution levels in a short period of time. And is time to question why the climate crisis isn’t treated with the same sense of urgency as a virus?

The first quarter of 2020 arrived like a bull in a china shop. Wildfires decimated Australia, there’s the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria, and now Covid-19. And with it, a fresh wave of xenophobia and political uncertainty. While the immediate outlook appears gloomy, among the chaos, there is a chink of light; is there a lesson to be learnt, which might help us in the fight against climate change?

Coronavirus now has a foothold in nearly 100 countries with over 100,000 cases and over 4,000 deaths (and counting). The repercussions are unprecedented – racism, fear, political crises, geopolitical uncertainties, breakdown of supply chains, medicine shortages, we could go on. This serves to highlight two things: firstly, the world has never been so interconnected; and secondly, how weak our systems are. 

BUT (and it is a big but…)

All is not lost. Because on the flip side of all the doom-mongering, the virus has caused a few unexpected events (and were it not for the circumstances, we’d be a little more excited about it). 

COVID-19 has led to a drop of 200 million tonnes of CO2 in China since the start of the outbreak. That equates to more than 10% of total worldwide emissions. By now, you will likely have seen NASA’s images which clearly show the dramatic decrease in pollution over the region. This by no means mitigates, nor makes any less devastating, the human cost of the outbreak; death, quarantine measures, small businesses and low-income households at financial breaking point are but a few of the consequences. But what this has served to highlight is that when it comes to solving the climate crisis, we can create MASSIVE change in a very short period of time. 

Why does it take an epidemic to be the catalyst for change?

Good question. IFOP studies in the U.S.A., UK, France, Italy, and Germany, show that 50% of the population believe civilisation is about to collapse, and 30% believe it will happen within 20 years. Scientists publish articles repeating facts about the climate crisis regularly and often. And researchers, like Pablo Servigne, have been writing about the potential collapse of our entire society for years. (Servigne’s research centres around his theory of ‘collapsology’ and how factors like climate change can lead to the collapse of global systems). 

Even the Doomsday clock (a symbol representing the likelihood of a human-made global catastrophe) indicates that we are closer than ever to crunch point (it’s currently 100 seconds to midnight, or ‘doomsday’). This is mainly due to increased geopolitical uncertainty, but also because of the climate crisis.

But despite the science, the warnings, the facts, and the knowledge, it takes a virus to highlight the fragility of our global systems. And an epidemic to see real-time, high impact changes with regards to pollution. So why isn’t the climate crisis being treated with the same sense of emergency as COVID-19? Answer: because people think COVID-19 will happen to them, whereas the climate crisis will happen to “other people”.

Talking of collapse, are we on the brink of the next financial crisis?

Currently, our energy system primarily relies on burning fossil fuels. And it’s the greenhouse gases emitted during this process that cause climate change (check out our YouTube vid for a deeper dive). And who’s propping up this industry? Banks.

The impact COVID-19 is making on the global economy is astonishing. This week we’ve seen stock markets plummet to lows not seen since the 2008 financial crisis and the collapse of Lehman Brothers. And the evolving oil standoff between Russia and Saudi Arabia has even caused speculation as to whether the oil and gas industry is on the verge of bankruptcy. 

Is Covid-19 the black swan event that will reshape our financial systems and relationship with fossil fuels? Possibly. And would an economic crash could be a good thing for the climate? Probably. But at what cost? Destroying the lives of millions of the poorest people already living in poverty? Do we really need to go to these extremes to limit pollution levels?

For all of the devastation it’s wreaking on the world, Coronavirus has proven it is entirely possible to dramatically decrease pollution in a very short period of time. In any catastrophe scenario, there is always some sort of lesson we can extract. And this might just be a sign from Mother Earth that if we really wanted to do something about the climate crisis, we could.