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COVID and climate

Why our pandemic recovery plan is a chance to fight for a greener planet.

By: /
25 January, 2021
Aerial view of wildfire on the field. Huge clouds of smoke
Aerial view of a wildfire in Russia. Anton Petrus/Getty Images

We are at a crossroads. Our response to the COVID-19 crisis will determine the future of climate governance.

Last spring, while shocked to see the scale of the health crisis, some people were comforted by the thought of environmental revitalization. There was blue sky above once smog-filled cities at last.

It was a mirage. Although a drop (25 per cent at most) in CO2 emissions was reported, it was only temporary. As in the case of the 2008 recession, emissions shot up again. When the curve of hospitalizations flattened in the spring, the curve for global atmospheric CO2 concentration, known as the “Keeling curve,” started to rise once more. The impact of the economic downturn on the climate will be insignificant. The planet needs far more than a few months’ respite to get its breath back.

Nonetheless, the COVID-19 crisis is a reminder of the vital importance of tackling pollution. The atmospheric pollution generated by fossil fuel consumption causes cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases, which increase the risk of mortality from COVID-19. Around 15 per cent of COVID-19 deaths are linked to atmospheric pollution, according to a recent study published in Cardiovascular Research.

Climate change also makes future epidemics more likely. With the increase in precipitation and temperature, new insect-borne infectious diseases will probably reach our latitudes, and the melting permafrost could release viruses that have been frozen for centuries.

“Human health and the planet’s health are linked.”

The World Health Organisation predicts that climate change alone will cause 250,000 deaths each year from 2030 onwards. That is equivalent to the COVID-19 mortality rate in the first four months of 2020. Human health and the planet’s health are linked.

COVID recovery plans are a unique opportunity to promote more environmentally friendly growth. At first sight, this scenario may seem improbable. We might expect economic hardship to cool enthusiasm for climate action. But this is not necessarily the case. Political scientists Zorzeta Bakaki and Thomas Bernauer, for example, researched public attitudes in Brazil in 2015 and 2016 and found little evidence that adverse economic conditions resulted in diminished support for policies aimed at reducing deforestation and climate change.

The present context is favourable for a transition to a greener economy.  With high levels of unemployment, investments to make our buildings more energy efficient and our transportation systems more sustainable, would provide jobs in various sectors. Exceptionally low interest rates reduce the costs of these investments.

Green recovery plans are proliferating throughout the world. Last summer, the European Commission announced a 550 billion euro investment package for the climate. The money will be allocated to developing energy-efficient buildings, electric transport systems and green technologies. Strict environmental measures will also be imposed on all businesses that benefit from the funds.

President Joe Biden is proposing US$2 trillion in investments to boost the American economy and simultaneously reduce its carbon dependency. This plan was inspired by proposals from senators Elizabeth Sanders and Bernie Warren. It is unlikely that either Biden or the European Commission would have put forward such ambitious proposals if the pandemic had not triggered the economic downturn.

This is a window of opportunity. While the drop in emissions last spring was temporary, green plans can achieve a structural reduction that is sustainable. According to a study published in Nature Climate Change, it is possible to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and avoid excessive global warming, if countries around the world adopt green recovery plans.

Admittedly, other governments are banking on going back to a high carbon economy. Not all political leaders are interested in creating synergies between economic development and environmental transition. For example, Russia and Turkey’s recovery plans include generous subsidies for polluting industries. But both the European Commission and President Biden are considering trade measures aimed at forcing countries to make a green shift.

Some countries, including Canada, lie between the two extremes, funding both green industries and polluting ones. The federal government and several provincial governments say they are committed to green infrastructures, but the fossil fuel industry and the aviation industry benefit from public funding with no green strings attached. Several Canadian leaders seem to be hesitating at the crossroads between going back to a high carbon economy or opting for a green technology-based recovery.

Post-COVID-19 recovery plans provide a rare chance to boost the environmental transition. Various public measures could have a multiplier effect on the economy by providing jobs and income to economic victims of COVID-19, while accelerating the transition toward a greener economy. COVID-19 will have a profound effect on the current generation. It is also a chance to invest in future ones.

Jean-Frédéric Morin is a fellow at the Canadian International Council and an expert in environmental technologies and diversity.

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