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The coronavirus crisis and climate change

Sustainable Transformation Ecosystems COVID-19

The fact that we are now focusing almost all our attention to the coronavirus crisis is, of course, perfectly understandable. Nevertheless, it is wise not to lose sight of, or ignore other crises. Of these, climate change is undoubtedly the most serious one, especially as climate change is a major factor in the development of other crises, such as biodiversity loss and global poverty.

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Even on the coronavirus crisis, climate change has a possible - albeit indirect - effect: the higher seasonal temperatures at the geographical latitude where the biggest outbreaks of infection have so far occurred, may have accelerated the spread of the virus. Although the evidence for this is not unambiguous, it does not alter the fact that, due to climate change, pandemics such as the present one will occur more frequently in the future. After all, climate change is disrupting ecosystems. As a result of the disappearance of the natural habitat of animals, zoonotic viruses have the opportunity to switch to humans. Old viruses escaping from melting permafrost also pose a potential danger to humans.

Vice versa, the current pandemic will already have an impact on climate change in the short term. The good news is that CO2 emissions will fall significantly in the short term due to declining air traffic and international trade. This may very well lead to the bizarre situation in the Netherlands that the government will be able to meet the CO2 reduction targets imposed by the Urgenda Climate Case without putting in any extra effort.

CO2 emissions will quickly climb back to their old levels

But there will be more negative climate effects of the coronavirus in both the short and long term. For starters, because governments want to postpone (planned) measures. For example, the government of the Czech Republic has already suggested suspending the EU Green Deal, while Poland wants to inactivate the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS). Furthermore, the coronavirus crisis already has a very concrete impact today. MIT Technology Review, the magazine of the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently reported that the coronavirus crisis is making it more difficult to finance current and future projects aimed at the production and storage of renewable energy. Historically low oil prices also make fossil fuels even more attractive from a cost perspective than often already more expensive electrical alternatives. The production of solar panels, wind turbines and batteries for electric vehicles in China has declined due to the coronavirus crisis and companies are facing supply and shipping problems. Finally, and certainly when the pandemic will lead to a global economic recession, the political will to combat climate change and related public investments in climate efforts will decline. It is quite easy to see how, once the coronavirus crisis will be over, industry will catch up again, with political support, and CO2 emissions will quickly climb back to their old levels or even higher. In China, we can already see this happening: the government is currently adopting a more flexible approach to environmental regulations in order to allow companies to quickly resume production.

We react way too slow

We are now experiencing the effects of the coronavirus crisis at first hand: from (the risk of) infection by the virus (of yourself or your loved ones) and the short-term occurrence of financial problems to social abstinence and the realization that normal life is completely shattered for an indefinite period of time. This helps us to react so decisively, making the tragedy of the climate crisis all the more visible: precisely because we hardly experience the effects of climate change physically and immediately, we react to it much more slowly. While climate change in its ultimate effects is a health crisis, a social crisis, an environmental crisis and an economic crisis all in one.

Common denominator of corona and climate crises

The coronavirus and climate crises also have a common denominator: they show us the limits of a socio-economic system based on a neo-liberal capitalist ideology. In this system, natural ecosystems are factors of production, valuable public services such as care and education are reduced to a cost item, and climate change is a business case liable to the economic climate. The underlying crisis can therefore perhaps best be described as a moral crisis. If we want to do justice to the adagio “never waste a good crisis”, it would be good to use this time not only to secure the short-term health of as many people as possible, but also to reassess the values that guide us in the organization of our society. This means thoroughly questioning the relationship between man and nature, our solidarity with the most vulnerable people, and the social contract between citizens and the state.

Call: come closer together regarding the values we put at the core of our society

Just to be clear: this is not a call to pay less attention to the coronavirus crisis, on the contrary. It is a call to use these times of social distancing to come closer together regarding the values we put at the core of our society.

Do you want to contact the author of this blog? Or do you have a question? Let him know via lars.moratis@ams.ac.be.