Climate Change and the COVID-19 Crisis

Climate Change and the COVID-19 Crisis


Prasoon Agrawal

The Coronavirus pandemic is the largest health crisis world has ever seen in a century and the largest economic crisis in over a decade. The pandemic interacts with the other crisis being faced by the world, the one of climate change, in the sense that both the crises are immune to national borders and pose an imminent threat to modern human civilization. The immediacy of taking extensive climate action is underlined by the all too frequent wildfires, droughts and tropical cyclones that have battered the earth recently. The effects of the COVID-19 crisis, the economic halt and broad-based lifestyle changes, actually bought some good news on the fronts of climate change battle by bringing down greenhouse gas emissions. The Economist reports that 2020’s expected greenhouse emissions will be 2-7% lower than in 2019. The sudden economic halt also provides an opportunity to think afresh on how to tackle the immediate health crisis and the long-term climate crisis by adopting sustainable and climate friendly internationally coordinated socio-economic policies.

While the immediate impacts on the environment may seem drastically good when one feels the historic drop in air pollution levels in cities like Delhi and Beijing or the sights of wildlife returning to places long abandoned by them, the changes fall short of making any major impact on long term decarbonisation or adopting a greener lifestyle. New York Times reports that the UN requires greenhouse emission to fall by 8% every year between now and 2030 in order to adhere to the targets chalked out in the Paris Climate Agreement, and as mentioned above the expected declines due to economic lockdowns fall short of required targets. The observed reductions in emissions also come at extreme economic costs, much to the detriment of poor and the vulnerable, and are clearly not sustainable for a long period of time.

One of the most important pillars of fighting climate change is increased international cooperation in adopting climate friendly policies. The effects of the pandemic on that front seem to be more detrimental than encouraging. The health crisis has prompted nationalist leaders across the globe to vouch for higher protectionism and self-sufficiency. It has also led to increased suspicions of the motives of rival nations which inadvertently leads to lesser international cooperation. Indian Prime Minister has given a call for an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat Mission’ (self-dependent India) to come out of the health and economic crisis, while Trump has displayed his usual disdain for international bodies by withdrawing support to the WHO amidst a global pandemic. The Trump administration has also used the pandemic to weaken environmental protection laws acting on his long-held position being a climate change denier.

The two global crises which have engulfed the world are sure to drastically alter the trajectory of socio-economic policies and bring in lifestyle changes. The pandemic offers opportunities to reset the priorities of the nations and chart a climate friendly path of development but also challenges in terms of vested economic and political interests taking off the cream in the new state of things. The time seems ripe to embolden the calls for a global green new deal!

The author is a Masters student at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.