Climate change before, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic – where are we?

by | Aug 30, 2021 | Climate and Environment

Just when the perception of climate change as a threat was finally gaining momentum, the new highly transmissible COVID-19 changed our world in an unprecedented way. As the world faced this unforeseen threat, priorities from the micro to the macro level shifted towards ensuring the short-term health and economic survival1. There is little doubt that the measures taken to contain the virus caused significant economic constraints and that governments had to deal with sectors that needed urgent financial help. The private sector also contracted and the ultimate result has been the diversion of resources diverted from sustainable and socially equal investments.

As the world grappled with the COVID-19 crisis, it was actually making progress on tackling climate change. Most countries took stringent lockdown measures for a significant period of 2020, to decrease viral transmission and prevent the collapse of their overburdened health systems. A remarkable outcome of these measures were the sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions due to restricted movement, reduced transportation, electricity generation, and industrial production12. As a result, the global carbon dioxide emissions were 6.4% lower in 2020.

Yet the progress was short lived. As governments started to ease measures and life started to go back to ’’normal’’, climate change indicators were quickly back to pre-pandemic levels with the caveat that a huge amount of resources were allocated towards climate change-driving sectors with little regard towards sustainable solutions, in an effort to revitalise the economy. The result was that by the end of 2020 greenhouse gas emissions ‘recovered’ to pre-pandemic levels. What is even more concerning is that scientists acknowledged that the emissions decline during the pandemic, although significant, was less than what was expected given the scale of the pandemic response2.

One thing that did not change during or after the COVID-19 pandemic was scientists’ advocacy for action agains climate change. If anything, advocates and scientists found new and creative ways to reach and educate people3. The intersection between the pandemic and climate change has also received a substantial scientific interest. A simple search of ‘COVID climate change’ yields more than 38 000 results for 2020 (and 22 000 for 2021). The challenge lies in how to translate research into meaningful climate action.

The picture is dark, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Now is our chance to realise that we need to invest immediately, significantly, and sustainably in our future. This investment involves thinking at many levels from macro to micro and  keeping sustainability as paramount guiding principal. Change in the status quo is necessary if we are to preserve our societies and civilisation. Pandemic preparedness is also key. We don’t know if the next major threat is an influenza strain or an antibiotic-resistant strep. Whichever it is, we need to be prepared for action that will address the issue without compromising our efforts on the other fronts4. And what is clear is that climate change, future pandemics, planetary health, and economic sustainability are truly interconnected.