Coronavirus and climate change are two crises that need humanity to unite

IIED director Andrew Norton looks at some of the emerging impacts of the coronavirus outbreak, and discusses the possible longer-term effects of the pandemic.

Andrew Norton's picture
Blog by
13 March 2020

Andrew Norton is director of IIED

A worker cleans a train

Finding responses to the pandemic: New York City’s public transport authority says it will disinfect trains every 72 hours (Photo: Marc A. Hermann, MTA New York City Transit via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Coronavirus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization yesterday. It will have a huge global impact in 2020, not only on health and wellbeing, but also on our societies, economies and politics. 

It is worth thinking through at this point what the impact of the pandemic may be on climate change and climate actions – in terms of emissions, global and national politics, and social change.

Direct economic effects

The drop in global emissions caused by the coronavirus will reflect the level of its impact on global economic activity. Reports have already shown that measures to contain it have caused output across key industrial sectors in China to drop by as much as 40%, which is likely to have wiped out a quarter or more of its carbon emissions since February.  

Obviously, a drop in emissions is not a bad thing from a purely climate change perspective. But what counts in terms of meaningful action to address the climate crisis is long-term structural change, in particular replacing fossil fuels as fast as possible from all sectors. 

If there is a temporary reduction in emissions in 2020, that could encourage a false sense that global emissions are on a long-term decline when in fact they are not. A coronavirus-induced drop in world emissions will mean very little in the long run on its own.

If handled badly, the pandemic could suck the energy out of public action and public policy as prosperity declines. Governments will need over the longer term to provide stimulus to economies that suffer from the impact of the coronavirus. One way could be to fund elements of the green transition, thereby creating jobs. Helping economies and societies that suffer to recover and start the shift to a low emissions future is a way to meet both short and long-term social needs.

National political effects

Governments need to respond effectively and fast to the coronavirus. That could distract attention and divert resources away from focusing on the climate crisis in the short term.

All countries need to do more in terms of their climate commitments to be ready for the UN climate summit in Glasgow in November.  A short-term focus on coronavirus is obviously necessary but must not distract from investment in climate action. Otherwise valuable time needed to build momentum for COP26 could be lost.

The pandemic could also affect social movements’ ability to organise to demand climate action. Where these voices can no longer be expressed in public spaces politicians and policymakers need to listen in other ways and remember public concern has not gone away.

Impact on the negotiations and preparation process for COP26

Coronavirus is already having an impact on a range of preparatory meetings, which bear on the chances that the Glasgow climate meeting will deliver the action it must, such as significant national emissions reduction pledges in richer countries and an increase in climate finance to support low-carbon transition and resilience in the poorest countries. 

As time goes on, major international meetings such as the intersessionals, due to be held in June, may have to be cancelled, delayed or done virtually. Even if COP26 can be held as planned, much time for essential groundwork may have been lost.

Perhaps the biggest risk is that the intensive programme of diplomatic activity in the run up to it will be disrupted. The European Union-China summit in September, for example, is potentially critical for persuading China to adopt a more ambitious stance on mitigation. Even if it goes ahead it may be harder to get a result if the preparatory meetings have been disrupted.

If international organisations can learn how to run these processes effectively and equitably with less long-haul flying something positive may come from this. But there is a real risk that poorer countries will be disenfranchised if the transition to virtual meetings is not handled with equality of voice in mind.

Both basic problems of bandwidth and quality of ‘kit’, as well as issues with access to the process of planning for virtual meetings could work to marginalise poorer countries. IIED works closely with the Least Developed Countries Group in the climate negotiations and we will be tracking whether the trend to virtual meetings hinders the chances for poorer countries to have a voice. 

It is an area where some smart and agile use of a relatively small amount of climate finance might make a real difference.

Changes in social norms and the perception of value and risk

Urgent response is needed on both climate and the pandemic. Maybe the immediacy of the threat of coronavirus will make it easier to find that urgency. 

In many richer countries (but few poorer ones) the threat of the climate crisis does not feel immediate. But the politics of action are also vastly different. With the coronavirus there are no interest groups that benefit directly from promoting inaction and delay like the fossil fuel industry does with climate change. Supposedly innate characteristics of human perception are certainly not the whole story – politics and vested interests matter too.

Perhaps the pandemic will produce changes that make societies more willing to act on the climate crisis in the long run. Strengthening recognition of our interdependence – that everyone’s health is everyone else’s business – could strengthen the understanding that compassion and empathy are functional traits for humanity.

Acceptance of the need to make sacrifices and accept restraints for both the common good and personal wellbeing could help increase understanding of the huge shifts in regulation and behaviour that are needed to address the climate crisis. Maybe this is wishful thinking, but changes in values do not happen in linear ways and crisis events can also be used as opportunities for change.

The coronavirus pandemic is a global tragedy on a scale that is still uncertain, and the possibilities are hard to fully grasp. It will certainly throw up some formidable practical problems for climate action and may make landing the key changes we need to see at COP26 in November harder.

But in the long run if it leads to a deeper understanding of the ties that bind us all on a global scale maybe it can help, rather than hinder, the chance of humanity getting to grips with the climate crisis.

Further reading on IIED's work and the coronovirus

This blog was originally posted on the Climate Home website.

About the author

Was this page useful to you?