photo courtesy of Aïda Amer
We are now sitting in the eighth month of the coronavirus pandemic, and slowly but surely, the world is beginning to recover. Some of the earlier hit countries, such as China and Japan, are entering the final stages of, or have completed, reopening. However, the loosening of pandemic precautions does not in any way mean that we should relax all humanitarian efforts.
After all, Covid-19 is not the only crisis mankind is facing.
Although it may have seemed like going into lockdown put a pause on all of the problems that existed on the other side of our front door, that was not the case at all. Climate change remains as urgent of an issue as ever, and our planet has not stopped telling us so.
This is clear in California, where rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns have turned a messy gender reveal party into raging wildfires that have scorched through 3.4 million acres of land and killed 26 people. It’s also evident on the opposite side of the country, where Hurricane Sally has drowned the Gulf Coast with unprecedented amounts of rain. Rising temperatures have caused our storms to be wetter and slower, so even Category 2 hurricanes like Sally can flood states with 30 inches of rain.
In fact, climate change may have also played a role in this pandemic. Scientists say that a decreasing amount of biodiversity has dealt a blow to Earth’s natural defense systems, making infectious diseases more common.
But just as we can’t ignore the severity of the climate crisis, we also can’t ignore that the past few homebound months have done some good for our planet. In February, China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, released 25% less emissions than usual. Global carbon emissions were down by an impressive 17% in April. Even Pittsburgh, a city known for its smoggy air, has seen a 23% decrease in particulate matter concentrations.
So, as painful and devastating as this pandemic has been, it has also presented us with an opportunity. And depending on how we handle it, the future could go very right, or very, very wrong.
To be clear, although the progress made during the pandemic creates an enormous opportunity, the reductions in and of themselves will hardly make a dent on rising temperatures. A father-daughter team from the University of Leeds in England found that, by 2030, global temperatures will only be .01 degrees C lower than first predicted. Given this opportunity, it is the course of action we choose to take that will determine our environmental future.
While emissions have been decreasing, virus containment measures have slowed progress on the climate crisis. Lockdown and social distancing have hindered climate research, and gatherings of world leaders to discuss climate change have been delayed or cancelled.
As countries reopen and governments focus their efforts on recovery, it will be dangerously easy to push back climate change on the list of priorities. In the coming months, policymakers will desperately try to save their shrinking economies, and it is very possible that stimulus measures could nullify the short-term environmental advancements created by the virus. Already, China has indicated it will relax environmental supervision of companies to support production of goods and boost the economy.
Around the world, the desire to conquer climate action seems to be deteriorating, as well. Prime Minister Andrej Babis of the Czech Republic has even stated that the European Green Deal, the EU’s action plan to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 should be set aside so that countries can focus their efforts on fighting the pandemic.
If we continue like this, there is no hope of attaining the goal established in the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. If the international community relaxes its focus here, we will be facing a critical situation even more disastrous than the Covid-19 epidemic.
So, what can we do?
First of all, the same sense of urgency that was available during the peak of the pandemic must be applied to the climate crisis. From there on, policymakers will need to make sustainability a priority when planning for economic recovery. The release of so many stimulus packages offers an opening for governments to invest in clean energy and push for a low-carbon economy.
Individually, we must be ready to face the difficult truth and respond with the necessary sacrifices. Fixing our planet will mean adopting a more sustainable lifestyle, whether that means walking to more places instead of driving, decreasing consumption of unethical commercial brands, or abstaining from the use of fossil fuels. It will also require us — the ordinary people — to push for real accountability from those who make the big decisions.
And if we can do this, if we can actively protect our environment and start making real changes, we stand a fighting chance of meeting our climate goals for the future.
However small the impact has been, the lower carbon emissions caused by the coronavirus have gifted us with an opportunity. Let’s not waste it.
This story was originally published on The Uproar on September 24, 2020.