Coronavirus is a world-wide crisis that profoundly affects all our lives. Can we learn from it about that other global emergency – climate change?

The global response to Covid-19 has been extremely swift, unusually decisive, and on a massive scale. Looking back even a couple of weeks, it is incredible to see the changes that we have all made to keep ourselves, our loved ones, the NHS and our community safe from the virus. Across the world, countries have shut down borders, prohibited travel, diverted resources to bolster their health services, supported financial systems, and effectively closed down the sporting, tourism and leisure sectors for an indefinite period. In the UK we have seen an interest rate cut, government support for small businesses, and a promise to do “whatever it takes” to keep the NHS going.  Money seems to be no object.

To start with, coronavirus shows up the weaknesses and lack of resilience in our systems, from the just-in-time food supply chain, to the fossil fuel industry, to the care of our elders. It’s hard to think of any part of our society that is not affected. It’s a social and economic experiment on a world-wide scale. Coronavirus affects international companies as well as the small and medium sized businesses that make Lewes one of the best small towns to live in. Disruption to local shops and businesses is already extremely painful. Our young people working on zero hours contracts in the gig economy are hard hit as those jobs dry up.

We’re all making far-reaching, difficult changes to our behaviour and lifestyles and working out how to care for children and older relatives, keep an income coming in, and navigating how to get household essentials and food. An appeal to the spirit of the Blitz will perhaps focus attention on what is really essential in our lives. At the same time as Lewes Foodbanks are running out of tinned tomatoes and loo-roll, Facebook groups are springing up to offer support to neighbours.

“If one virus can wipe out the entire economy in a matter of weeks and shut down societies, then that is a proof that our societies are not very resilient. It also shows that once we are in an emergency, we can act and we can change our behaviour quickly.”  Greta Thunberg

More positively, 2020 will be a year of somewhat lower greenhouse gas emissions, as flights are cancelled, cruise ships mothballed, more people work at home, and manufacturing slows down. Air quality has rapidly improved as the government urges people to abandon commuting (have you noticed the bluer skies and the birdsong?). The last significant fall in carbon emissions was during the economic crash of 2008-9. It still remains the case that economic activity generates carbon emissions, despite much progress towards decarbonising our energy through (almost) getting rid of coal, and rapid ramping up of wind and solar power.

An interesting and possibly welcome side-effect of coronavirus is a reduction in the choice of foods and consumer goods available in the shops. To cope with staff shortages, the supermarkets’ resilience plans include reducing the range of goods they manufacture. For example, instead of seven varieties of ketchup on the supermarket shelves, there could be just two. This helps to streamline production, keep supplies flowing, and makes it much quicker to re-stock shelves.

According to ‘nudge theory’ – behavioural economics – salience and proximity are two driving forces that lead us to take action. The closer a problem is to us and our families and the greater the impact on our daily lives, the more likely we are to notice. Ten years ago, George Marshall rightly identified that it’s hard to take climate change seriously when it seems geographically distant, far in the future, and the impacts uncertain.

Even now, as floods, bush fires and ash die-back are explicitly linked to climate change, efforts to tackle greenhouse gas emissions and the extinction of biodiversity are limited in ambition. The pandemic has slowed down government responses to climate change, with few countries submitting plans to cut carbon emissions to the postponed COP26 summit in Glasgow. During the lockdown, climate policy could be sidelined as governments focus first on slowing the spread of the virus, and then on rebooting stalled economies.

An economic recession could be bad for the climate too. Strong economies are more resilient to change, and an economy in recession might not be able to afford sustainable development. A wave of bankruptcies could lead to government intervention to prop up the weaknesses in the fossil fuel industry. As oil prices continue to fall – partly due to the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia but also due to the virus – renewable energy like solar and wind power becomes less competitive in price. Potentially this could open up a space for cutting subsidies for fossil fuels. Even the International Energy Agency is urging governments and international financial institutions to put climate action at the heart of rebuilding the economy, by funding investment in clean power, battery storage, and carbon capture technology.

Strong international collaboration is needed too. Patricia Espinosa, the United Nations’ executive secretary for climate change, warned:  “COVID-19 is the most urgent threat facing humanity today, but we cannot forget that climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity over the long term.”

On an individual level, the coronavirus lockdown could inspire climate-friendly lifestyle changes. The changes most likely to stick in a crisis are those that were already underway before it hit, such as home working and online meetings.

But to have a whole society shift behaviour really quickly, we need support for everyone on the scale seen in the CoVid crisis. Social and economic support for individuals and small businesses reduces the risks associated with change. In the CoVid crisis, cooperation between experts, politicians and the public shows that strong policies, based on scientific evidence, can have public support. The massive mobilisation of effort in every corner of communities and society shows us a possible future for climate action.

Kirsten Firth, TTL