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COVID-19 and Climate Change: Our Biggest Catastrophes

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.


By Chloe Allen

Section Editor for Environmental Law


We all thought that COVID-19 was already the primary topic spoken about within the media, however this is arguably only going to be exacerbated in the coming year or so. This global crisis has stunned the world as never before, is causing an unimaginable number of deaths, and is leading to economic disparity which has not been witnessed in decades. But in no time at all, this description will be increasingly application to another global crisis: climate change.[1]




COVID-19 has inarguably popularised the phrase ‘we are all in this together,’ in an almost ironic manner as this is not completely true; the pandemic has starkly exposed the deep social inequalities.[2] Despite this, as Klein has commented, “moments of crisis can also be moments where we catapult ourselves forward.”[3] It is irrefutable that COVID-19 has served as a so-called wake-up call globally when it comes to climate change and the long-term risks it creates for humanity.[4] It is however difficult to predict whether COVID-19 will galvanise support for more aggressive efforts to combat climate change, as it is clear that some will argue that governments cannot afford to spend money on tackling climate change at a time of unprecedented unemployment rates and skyrocketing debt.[5] On the other hand, a more convincing argument is that curbing the drivers of climate change will largely assist in suppressing the emergence (and re-emergence) of zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19.[6]

The COVID-19 context has highlighted that the future of society can no longer be based on the unassailable sovereignty of nation-states making decisions to purely protect the interests of single nations. It is quite evident that both COVID-19 and climate change are significant global catastrophes that require global solutions rather than national ones.[7] Such contagious diseases and environmental damage are both classic examples of what economists have referred to as negative externalities. These are problems that markets cannot handle singularly.[8] Furthermore, in economic terms, both pandemics and climate change have been characterised as “global public bad,” highlighting the necessary cooperation required to even attempt to successfully recover or combat, respectively.[9]


On 1 February 2021, a new Crack the Crises coalition of organisations representing around 10 million people in the United Kingdom launched following a YouGov / Save the Children poll. This revealed that 83% of respondents believed that the COVID-19 outbreak was handled more efficiently by countries who were working together to find a solution.[10] Further, the Crack the Crises coalition works to unite nature, development, climate change, and United Kingdom social justice groups with a shared strategy: essentially urging a just and green recovery.[11] Ingery Andersen, UNEP Executive Director, highlighted that a truly green recovery from COVID-19 can take “a huge slice out of greenhouse gas emissions” and slow climate change.[12] The green recovery could possibly cut expected emissions in 2030 by up to 25% and boost the chance of keeping temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius up to 66%, according to the most recent UN Report.[13]


It has been affirmed that, resultant of the global 2020 lockdowns, carbon dioxide emissions fell by 17% in their peak,[14] but the global response to COVID-19 has had little impact on the continued rise in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, according to the World Meteorological Organisation. The Secretary-General, Petteri Taalas, said in regard to this: “the lockdown-related fall in emissions is just a tiny blip on the long-term graph – we need a sustained flattening of the curve.”[15] It is thus increasingly evident that we need to turn recovery from COVID-19 into a real opportunity to pave the way for the future.[16]


Not only has COVID-19 highlighted deep social inequalities but it has clearly demonstrated that political leaders have a tendency to react slowly in the face of unprecedented threats. This is a substantial obstacle to the necessary green recovery opportunity. While it is clear that the United Kingdom government has been disappointing in relation to their COVID-19 response thus far, they are especially eager to use the pandemic as an excuse for their lax response to further, crucial issues needed to be addressed. Notably, the government has further delayed the long-awaited environmental bill, which significantly redraws rules after Brexit, for the reasoning that it was necessary resultant of handling COVID-19 and the lack of parliamentary debate time this has created.[17] I would argue that such a pressing issue as climate change should not be tabled, despite these unparalleled current times causing havoc in government. Furthermore, as the 2021 President of the G7, Boris Johnson will have to do more to crack the crises and bring all the other countries behind a shared plan to tackle COVID-19, exposed injustices, and climate change.[18]

To conclude, in light of a world suffering from two of the arguably most significant catastrophes, aligning responses to COVID-19 and climate change undeniably presents an opportunity to exponentially improve public health, create a sustainable economic future, and better protect the planet’s remaining natural resources and biodiversity.[19] If climate change is going to be adequately addressed, a successful and green recovery from COVID-19 is the best opportunity we have been provided within recent times.



 

[1] B Gates, COVID-19 is Awful. Climate Change Could Be Worse (2020) <https://www.gatesnotes.com/energy/climate-and-COVID-19> accessed 12 February 2021. [2] Z Grossman, The Resilience Doctrine: Mutual Aid in the Pandemic and Beyond (2021) <https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/02/04/the-resilience-doctrine-mutual-aid-in-the-pandemic-and-beyond> accessed 12 February 2021. [3] Ibid. [4] A Grzadkowska, Why COVID-19 and Climate Change Go Hand in Hand (2021) <https://www.insuranebusinessmag.com/us/news/environmental/why-covid19-and-climate-change-go-hand-in-hand-245434.aspx> accessed 12 February 2021. [5] J Frankel, COVID-19 and the Climate Crisis Are Part of the Same Battle (2020) <https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/oct/02/covid-19-and-the-climate-crisis-are-part-of-the-same-battle> accessed 12 February 2021. [6] Climate and COVID-19: Converging Crises (2021) <https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)32579-4/fulltext> accessed 12 February 2021. [7] J Bryson, Beyond Nation First? COVID-19, Climate Change, and Global Solutions Required for Global Problems (2020) <https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/perspective/covid-climate-change-and-gloal-solutions.aspx> accessed 12 February 2021. [8] Ibid n (5). [9] R Fuentes et al, COVID-19 and Climate Change: A Tale of Two Global Problems (2020). [10] P Ashworth, Tackle COVID-19, Poverty, and Climate Change Together, Government is Urged (2021) <https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2021/5-february/news/uk/tacle-covid-poverty-and-climate-change-together-government-is-urged> accessed 12 February 2021. [11] D Alexander and A Mitchell, COVID, Injustice, Climate Change: Boris Johnson Must Do More to Crack the Crises (2021) <https://labourlist.org/2021/02/covid-injustice-climate-change-boris-johnson-must-do-more-to-crack-the-crises/> accessed 12 February 2021. [12] Green Recovery from COVID-19 Can Slow Climate Change: UN Environment Report (2020) <https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/12/1079602> accessed 12 February 2021. [13] Ibid. [14] M McGrath, Climate Change: COVID Pandemic Has Little Impact on Rise in CO2 (2020) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-55018581> accessed 12 February 2021. [15] Ibid. [16] Department of Global Communications, Climate Change and COVID-19: UN Urges Nations to Recover Better (2020) <https://www.un.org/en/un-coronavirus-communications-team/un-urges-countries-%E2%80%98build-back-better%E2%80%99> accessed 12 February 2021. [17] F Harvey, Fury as Long-Awaited UK Environmental Bill is Delayed for Third Time (2021) <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jan/26/fury-as-long-awaited-uk-environment-bill-is-delayed-for-the-third-time> accessed 12 February 2021. [18] Ibid n (11). [19] Ibid n (6).

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