Despite negligent actions by some federal governments (including Brazil) and subsequent populations to the advancement of the Covid-19 coronavirus, a vast majority of global and unilateral initiatives have been much faster and more effective to the current health crisis than those in response to the climate crisis. For about 30 years, the international scientific community has sought to coordinate efforts to reverse the increase in the average temperature of the planet. The collective, global, response to the current pandemic, in turn, can bring important lessons for tackling climate change and other challenges in this century.
Coronaviruses are a group of viruses common in humans and responsible for up to 30% of common colds. Corona comes from the Latin "crown", as its surface looks like a crown under an electron microscope. The Covid-19 outbreak began in China in late 2019 and reached pandemic status on March 11, 2020. A week later, confirmed cases of the disease had already passed the 200,000 mark worldwide, reaching more than 150 countries. Although 81% of the cases have been mild, more than 8,000 people have already died from severe pneumonia, primarily people 80 years and older. By comparison, outbreaks such as SARS, in 2003, and MERS, in 2012, together resulted in less than 2,000 deaths worldwide.
The global average of cases from the current outbreak, however, hides more than it reveals. Countries like China and South Korea have adopted restrictive measures that have successfully reduced the number of new cases. On the other hand, in countries like Italy and Spain, the numbers continue to rise rapidly.
The coronavirus has transformed everyday life in such a significant way that the effects are visible from space. Pollution monitoring satellites from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) detected significant reductions in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over China. From January 23, 2020, Chinese authorities began blocking Wuhan (the source of the outbreak) and other cities in the region in order to reduce the spread of the disease, which resulted in significant reductions in air pollution.
In economic terms, these measures resulted in a 15% to 40% reduction in production in China's main industrial sectors, compared to the same period last year. Taken together, reductions in coal and oil consumption in China indicate a reduction in CO2 emissions of 25% or more, which is equivalent to approximately 100 MtCO2 or 6% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Satellite images of China, between January 1 and February 25, 2020. Source: NASA
International measures, which aim to reduce the spread of COVID-19, could save more lives due to the reduction of air pollution and the intensity of climate change than health complications caused by the virus. It is estimated that in China alone it is quite possible that up to twenty times more lives have been saved due to the reduction of pollution than those that have been lost by the virus so far (ref).
“It is incorrect and imprudent to conclude that pandemics are beneficial to the climate or to the very health of humanity, considering all of the suffering and other negative consequences of social and economic disruption. However, these estimates serve as a reminder of the hidden costs, short and long term, that surround our modern way of living.”
In many countries around the world, as the number of COVID-19 cases grows rapidly, government guidelines include avoiding environments with population agglomerations, companies have authorized employees to work from home, and international conferences and classes at schools are cancelled or transferred online. Such sudden changes are driven by the widespread recognition of an emergency.
The scientific community is offering clear warnings about what to do, both in the face of the pandemic and the climate crisis. Both issues involve public health, given that climate change is already causing food and water shortages, migratory problems and other natural disasters caused by humanity itself. Climate change is also expected to further increase the number of epidemics, especially infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue.
In addition to their global reach, both crises also share a common cause: the consumption of animal sourced food. In the case of the climate crisis, food of animal origin, mainly meat from cattle, has a high carbon footprint and has contributed to increase the concentration of GHG in the atmosphere. As for the coronavirus, the main cause of suspicion is the consumption of wild animals from Chinese markets. Rethinking eating habits, including reducing and replacing products of animal origin, will be essential to contain both types of crisis.
According to a recent article published by the journal Nature, to limit average global warming to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels, countries should cut their emissions above 7% per year from this year. At current rates (before coronavirus), in 10 years (2030) the world will heat up by an average of 1.5°C, and in 25 years (2045) by 2°C. This means that governments, the private sector and communities should respond through a crisis scenario mindset, exerting four times more effort than they have done so far - or 3 times faster - to be able to comply with the Paris Agreement.
“Unfortunately, society still seems unprepared for reality shocks like the fires in Australia or the COVID-19 pandemic. We are witnessing the collapse of health systems in many countries due to a lack of beds and care capacity, which has increased the lethality of the pandemic. The same can happen with the intensification of climate change in the coming years. Resilience, therefore, involves a reflection on the ability of the next generations to respond more quickly and minimize damage.”
The cost of prevention will always be less than the costs of inaction. And at the current stage of the two crises, prevention efforts must be accompanied by measures to adapt to the existing and projected impact.
If the international community had taken its commitments since Paris in 2015 as seriously as it has done for COVID-19 in recent weeks - taking into account the level of urgency that science says is necessary - we would probably have a drastically different outlook for the future.
Understanding what kind of risks we face, as an individual, country, company or world, is essential to be prepared for the anticipation, onset and aftermath of a crisis. The pandemic has shown that we are able to act quickly, promoting changes in behavior and economic activities, when there is interest from society and political will, while science strives to find a solution. May we know how to replicate the same formula to contain the climate crisis while there is still time!
*Cassia Moraes holds a Master's in Public Administration and Development from Columbia University and is our YCL CEO, as well as Network and Funding Coordinator of Brazil Center on Climate.
*Bruno Cunha is a Post-Doctoral Student and Associate Researcher at the CENERGIA Laboratory (PPE/COPPE) at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Specialist Reviewer at the IPCC and Advisor on the Academic Council for Youth Climate Leaders (YCL).