Pandemic disruption has created a “unique moment of possibility” to generate political will for climate action, suggests research by Riya Patel and Rebecca Dickson, global health students at the University of Sydney.
Riya Patel and Rebecca Dickson write:
Whilst the world comes to a near standstill in the face of COVID-19, could the pandemic mark a turning point for global action on climate change?
Many health and medical leaders are willing this to be the case, our research suggests.
“It’s almost an opportunity that may come from the [COVID-19] pandemic,” says Professor Anthony Capon, director of Monash Sustainable Development Institute.
Climate activists and concerned citizens should take advantage of this opportunity and must work towards more sustainable alternatives to create real, systemic change to combat climate change, he says.
The social and economic costs of the pandemic cannot be understated, and forced lockdowns are certainly not the appropriate path towards carving out a more climate-conscious future.
Rather, as countries begin their slow emergence from lockdown and economies are re-built, world leaders must take actions to ensure that recovery aligns with commitments on climate action and carbon-emissions targets.
The challenge for Australia is immense, according to our interviews with leading health and medical experts on climate change.
Dr Richard Yin of Doctors for the Environment says Australia is suffering from a “fossil fuels narrative”, which is acting as our basis for recovery.
Instead, he says, “we need to be taking steps to have a more sustainable economy and put investments into renewables…that would ensure that we take a different trajectory”.
Evidence-backed green alternatives are already available and actionable options include the end to bailouts for dirty energy companies, community-wide clean-ups and green stimulus packages based on investment in renewable energy tax credits
The alternative would entail locking in years of pollution with devastating consequences for the health of the planet and ensuring attempts to adapt in future will be more difficult, more costly and likely faced with more resistance.
In looking to the future, Professor Ying Zhang from the University of Sydney argues that we need to develop resilient health systems to better prepare and respond to future public health emergencies, with a certain increase in climate induced natural disasters, weather events and climate sensitive disease outbreaks.
She says this mammoth task requires a “whole-of-society” approach wherein neither “one single sector or one particular community or even one country can deal with it”.
The drastic global response to COVID-19, marked by quarantining citizens and placing whole cities into lockdown, clearly demonstrates that true international solidarity to combat climate change is indeed possible.
Widespread stories, of animals ‘taking over’ empty cities, clean air in major economic hubs leading to unseen glimpses of the Himalayan peaks in Indian cities and clear skylines across the United States, are raising awareness of the powerful impacts of human activity on the natural world and provides a glimpse into what a low-carbon future may look like.
These satellite photos show how COVID-19 lockdowns have impacted global emissions.
However, many experts recognise that this silver lining is likely to be fleeting.
Despite emissions projected to take their greatest fall since World War II, leading public health advocate Professor Peter Sainsbury notes that when considering the experience of previous recessions, any dips are likely to be temporary.
As factories reopen, and flights and daily commutes once again resume, very little long-term change will have occurred within the global economy with the climate as, once-again, an after-thought.
When looking to China’s pioneering experience with the virus, following a 25 percent fall in carbon emissions over a four-week period across the nation, emissions are slowly beginning to rebound, potentially to pre-pandemic levels, as demand slowly returns to normal.
As observed by Fiona Armstrong, executive director of the Climate and Health Alliance, “climate change doesn’t stop just because we’re not paying attention to it”.
Its deadliness cannot be overstated – even in the face of COVID-19 – with the World Health Organization estimating that 4.2 million deaths every year are due to the impacts of air pollution.
A challenge to health advocates
The science is clear – human behaviour is increasingly limiting planet Earth’s ability to regulate itself and projected impacts will drastically impact lives and livelihoods across the globe.
As we await greater clarity on how our nation’s economic recovery will look in a post-COVID world, there is increasing apprehension over where the Australian Government’s priorities may lie.
With global attention steadily focused on the rapidly worsening pandemic and economic crises, and those involved with the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission firmly pushing for a ‘gas-fired’ recovery, political will for meaningful action on climate change is under threat.
In this unique moment of possibility, forged by international pandemic disruption, climate advocacy must work to take advantage of the heightened popular awareness of our environmental impact.
We must generate the political will to truly take unprecedented global action to protect our planet from climate change, and mark the beginning of an era of commitments to respecting planetary boundaries.
• Riya Patel (pictured left) is a final year student of the Masters of Global Health at the University of Sydney, a graduate from Bachelor of Oral Health Science, and a member of Golden Key International Honour Society. Riya strongly believes that climate change is always misguidedly framed as a future risk, but the effects are already being observed and felt, with developing nations disproportionately impacted. Riya has long been fascinated by climate activism and recognises the immense challenges of tackling climate change. Following drastic actions to contain rapidly-spreading COVID-19, Riya recognises the powerful affect that human activity holds over the natural world. She believes that true international solidarity to combat climate change is indeed possible, and views this as a window of opportunity to take unprecedented global action to protect our planet from climate change.
• Rebecca Dickson (pictured right) is a current student of the Master of Global Health at the University of Sydney and an alumnus of the Bachelor of International and Global Studies. Rebecca has long been passionate about climate activism and feels particularly strongly over the intersection of climate change and vulnerability, wherein the most disadvantaged will be disproportionately impacted upon by climate change. She recognises that the challenge of tackling climate change is immense, but truly believes in the power of civil society to generate change. Rebecca recently returned to Australia after a year of living in Cusco, Peru. Following the implementation of drastic lockdowns and border closures, she had to rapidly find a way home in order to complete her university studies. Rebecca understands, on a personal level, the disrupting effect COVID-19 can have on livelihoods. She has appreciated the opportunity to explore the space opened for global action on climate change in a moment of economic silence worldwide and contribute to understanding on how we can create a post-pandemic world which is more sustainable and conscientious.
Declaration: Melissa Sweet co-supervised this research project, undertaken as part of global health studies at the University of Sydney.