• The positive environmental benefits of the pandemic have shown us what is possible.
  • Our actions - or inaction - now will shape human existence for generations to come.
  • Here's what policy and decision-makers must focus on to build the future we all need.

COVID-19 was not just a predictable crisis — it was predicted. An array of official guidelines for pandemic preparedness and response, from the World Health Organization and others, highlights just how seriously the threat was perceived. In the US, which currently has far more cases and deaths than any other country, the Obama administration notably left a 69-page pandemic ‘game plan’ in place for the incoming administration, to no avail. Fictional imaginings of global pandemics, meanwhile, have played out in the popular consciousness for decades.

Despite such warnings, there are understandable — if not acceptable — reasons for the profound failure to prepare for and, initially, to manage the COVID-19 crisis. These include the low probability of a pandemic in any given year, competing risks and opportunities, and limited and uncertain data during those tense early days. Yet though the path to controlling and subduing the coronavirus is treacherous and full of hard choices, there are signs of hope. Countries are proving it’s possible to flatten the curve and in some cases approach elimination of the virus. The application of humanity’s collective ingenuity will certainly pull us through — though not without tremendous hardship.

However, what is most concerning about COVID-19 is not the virus itself, but rather that it may be a harbinger of things to come. Climate change, a quandary of our own making, is set to become the worst crisis of our times. If we fail to appreciate our collective vulnerability and responsibility to act accordingly, the consequences will shape human lives and civilization for millennia.

COVID-19 and the climate

There are clear connections between COVID-19 and the climate crisis. For starters, climate change increases the likelihood of COVID-type pandemics — through changes in the habitats of disease vectors, for example, or increased inter-species contact resulting from deforestation.

More importantly, it vastly increases the likelihood of cascading disasters. In the case of COVID-19, health impacts won’t stop at infection itself, but will be amplified by broad economic and social fallout. In the short term, it exposes us to increased risks. Last year witnessed devastating heat waves in Europe, unprecedented wildfires in Australia, thousands of deaths due to Cyclone Idai off the southeastern coast of Africa and a host of other extreme weather events. There is no reason to believe 2020 will not deliver similar shocks to societies now handicapped by the economic impacts of the pandemic, with stretched emergency management capabilities and depleted health systems. Over longer timeframes, COVID-19 will have serious physical and mental health consequences through its effect on the global economy, on global and regional food systems, and on available resources for disaster response and social protection. The World Bank currently estimates that 40-60 million people will be driven into extreme poverty in 2020, a loss of about three years’ progress in poverty reduction.

There is a glimmer of hope. For if COVID-19 is a precautionary tale, it is also a crash course in the possible.

—María Mendiluce & Jose Siri

Similarly, climate change will generate events that escalate and proliferate, from multiple breadbasket failures to climate-induced conflicts and refugee crises. COVID-19 is in many ways unprecedented, but climate change threatens to produce shocks of greater magnitude that play out over longer timeframes, as highlighted in the IPCC's special report, Global Warming of 1.5°C. Without sufficient action, the long-term impacts of the climate crisis on health and the economy will play out year after year. For example, heat itself may cost global economies more than $2 trillion by 2030, with losses in some countries of 6% or more of GDP. Even closer to home, the WHO warns that air pollution—from sources that also contribute significantly to the climate crisis—cost $2.9 trillion, or 3.3% of global GDP, in one year (2018) and led to some 1.8 billion days of work absence.

The intersection of COVID-19 and climate is complex. Some of the same factors that cause climate change are also worsening the pandemic — for example, outcomes of infection are more serious in areas where populations have been exposed to air pollution. This is no surprise. Air pollution is responsible for seven million premature deaths per year, according to the WHO, often as a risk factor for other conditions. Indeed, we have long known that many of the underlying drivers of climate change have wide-ranging repercussions for health.

On the other hand, the pandemic response has led to precipitous drops in air pollution. By some estimates, cleaner air during the crisis has avoided 11,000 deaths in Europe. Globally, greenhouse gas emissions are projected to fall by 5.5% this year, a consequence of the confinement of 3 billion people at home and the corresponding economic jolt. And yet, even this massive reduction — which is decidedly temporary — would not yield a trajectory to limit global warming to 1.5°C. According to the latest science, this would require a 7.6% reduction per year. The transformations required are truly colossal.

Emissions have been cut back - but we're still not on track yet
Emissions have been cut back - but we're still not on track yet
Image: BBC

Reasons to be optimistic

But there is a glimmer of hope. For if COVID-19 is a precautionary tale, it is also a crash course in the possible. In our individual and collective innovations to meet and adapt to this crisis, in the connectivity that makes it a shared experience, and perhaps most of all in the elevation of health to centre-stage in our minds, new trajectories are becoming more feasible and more likely.

COVID-19 has led to experiments at all scales. It has changed the ways people live, work and move, their relationships with government and employment, and in some cases it has accelerated existing trends. To name a few, remote working has become the norm; more consumer purchasing has moved online; cities are experimenting with converting streets to accommodate walking and cycling, and international travel has virtually ceased — albeit temporarily.

These and other developments will not persist unabated, but they will leave their mark on people's lives and our post-COVID-19 world in unpredictable ways.

More immediately, a rapidly emerging consensus demands that the stimulus devoted to combating the economic consequences of the pandemic charts a healthier course for the future, asserting that we have a responsibility to do things differently. Critically, this position is embraced by much of the business community, which recognizes that business-as-usual is untenable, that we cannot continue operating as we have in the past, and that the new normal must have at its core the health of people and planet.

To date, more than 700 companies globally have signed a host of open letters to world leaders, calling on them to ensure that economic stimulus packages tackle both the impacts of the coronavirus and the ongoing climate crisis. Meanwhile, over 4,500 health professionals and more than 350 organizations, representing at least 40 million health workers worldwide, have urged the leaders of the G20 to ensure a green recovery.

So, while the pain of COVID-19 is devastating, it has created a policy window for climate action that six months ago would have been unimaginable. In the next year, trillions of dollars will be spent on recovery plans, stimulus packages and company bailouts. During this historic moment, governments can change the course of the future, investing in technologies that prevent systemic risks, including those presented by climate change, drastically reducing emissions and improving societal resilience. Business must play a key role, applying its innovative capacity, solution focus and financial acumen to the problem. If we are to avoid a repeat of the dramatic human and economic situation we confront today, governments, business and society must collaborate to:

1. Adopt science-based net-zero strategies. Both businesses and governments can address health and climate risks by adopting clear, science-based pathways to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. In the process this will create a 100% clean-energy system, accelerate the transition to zero-carbon mobility, build the zero-carbon heavy industries of the future and harness the potential of natural climate solutions. In addition to tackling the climate crisis, these pathways will generate decent jobs and safeguard health and wellbeing. Economic stimulus in the wake of COVID-19 should be dedicated to enabling these pathways.

2. Better account for and address current and future health risks. Global health security frameworks must encompass all hazards, including those arising from climate change. Preparing for and addressing these risks requires fostering collective, committed planning and prevention for global threats across all nations of the world and all stakeholder domains.

3. Redesign cities for better lives. COVID-19 has made visible the deep vulnerabilities and inequities that pervade so many of our cities and our urban ways of life. In the post-pandemic era, we must rethink urban design, planning and management and our relationships to urban systems. Stimulus responses to COVID-19 must promote healthier air, healthier mobility, healthier work and healthier play, among others. They must point the way to cities in which all citizens have access to security and opportunity, and they must put health at the heart of urban life.

To paraphrase George Santayana, we are not condemned to repeat the present, if only we can recognize and remember its lessons. This is, or should be, a clarifying moment: we can neither ignore the science nor look aside. We have a responsibility to build back healthier, and in doing so for tomorrow, we do it for perpetuity.