For those in the forefront of climate change research, and populations that are directly affected by floods, drought and wildfires, tackling carbon emissions is an urgent and ever-present topic of concern. For the rest of the world, while awareness of the impact of rising global temperatures may be slowly increasing, it is still not a matter of great urgency, and for everyone since early 2020 the Covid19 pandemic has taken centre stage as the most pressing issue the world faces.
But is there any evidence to show whether the emergence of Covid19 and climate change are linked, and can we learn lessons from how authorities, health agencies, businesses and individuals have responded to the crisis as we take future action on the climate?
First question, did the global lockdowns reduce harmful emissions in the Earth’s atmosphere? With hardly any planes flying, cars off the road and much manufacturing at a standstill, this seems a no-brainer, and in fact a study published in May 2021 showed that globally, carbon dioxide emissions dropped by nearly 7% in 2020. However, the study concludes that this drop is too small in both magnitude and duration to have any significant impact on global climate, and the World Meteorological Organization reported that overall levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere still increased in 2020 compared to 2019.
A tiny sliver of good news is that as carbon dioxide disperses very slowly from the atmosphere, we may see lockdown-influenced decreases in the future, particularly if post-pandemic recovery plans build in carbon neutral measures. An example is South Korea, which is advancing an ambitious climate agenda to support its recovery, while the European Union’s €750 billion recovery plan dedicates 25% of total stimulus funds for climate friendly measures, including supporting renewable energy and shifting to sustainable agriculture. The 2021 COP26 meeting also secured a vital commitment among members to keep the global temperature rise to 1.5% over pre-industrial levels.
Air quality is one of the areas where climate change and Covid19 intersect. Carbon emissions from fossil fuels cause a deterioration in the air quality in cities, and extreme weather conditions drive wildfires that can drastically affect the breathable atmosphere, as recently seen in Australia, Southern Europe and North America. Recent research at Harvard has found that people who live in places with poor air quality are more likely to die from Covid19 even when accounting for other factors that may influence risk of death such as pre-existing medical conditions, socioeconomic status, and access to healthcare. This study found that a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 particulates leads to a large increase in the Covid19 death rate.
Growth in pandemics
Many of the root causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics. Deforestation, which occurs mostly for agricultural purposes, is the largest cause of habitat loss worldwide. Loss of habitat forces animals to migrate and potentially contact other animals or people and share pathogens. Large livestock farms can also serve as a source for spillover of infections from animals to people.
Research has shown that high biodiversity reduces the risk of animal to human spillover. The recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa probably occurred in part because bats, which carried the disease, had been forced to move into new habitats because the forests they lived in had been cut down to grow palm oil trees. In mosquito- and tick-borne diseases, where there is a high diversity of wild vertebrates in a particular area, the mosquitoes and ticks feed on them instead of people. This results in lower infection rates in humans.
Investing in public health
A good baseline of health among the population, through the provision of healthcare, affordable healthy food and food education, and incentives to exercise more helps people develop strong immune systems and reduces their risk of developing conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. They are thus more able to resist very serious or fatal infections by new diseases such as Covid19.
So what can the pandemic teach us about tackling climate change?
Governments showed that they can take fast and unpopular measures when necessary, individuals on the whole will follow the political lead and the science, and scientists around the globe collaborated almost miraculously to understand Covid19 and come up with vaccines in record time.
Each country had its own rapid learning curve as Covid19 hit. Until that moment, psychologically it was a problem happening elsewhere, despite all the shocking news reports. But once the virus arrived, we learned that people are motivated by the personal and the actionable. The pandemic endangered the people and the things we care about, and as far as climate change is concerned that is also true. What is important is that this becomes more widely understood, and the same urgency is afforded to collaborating and taking effective actions as has been dedicated to dealing with Covid19.
“The biggest climate change myth is that the problem won’t affect us as individuals”, Katharine Hayhoe, atmospheric scientist.