Seven climate lessons from the corona crisis

Marten Ovaere, energy and climate economist (Ghent University and Yale University) and Kenneth Van den Bergh, engineer and entrepreneur (Carbon+Alt+Delete)

With the vaccination campaign in full swing, we have the prospect of a more or less carefree summer. But how do we ensure that the summer of 2050 will also be carefree? The corona crisis teaches us a lot about the climate crisis.

1. Acting decisively and quickly pays off. The corona crisis taught us that it is best to nip a virus in the bud as soon as possible after an outbreak. Acting decisively in the short term pays off much more than reactive damage control when things go wrong. Similarly, it is better to combat temperature rise now. If we want to limit the temperature rise to well below 2°C, we can emit CO₂ at the current rate for another 20 years at most. After that, we will resolutely go into CO₂-lockdown. If we already reverse the CO₂ curve today, we will have more time to move towards climate neutrality.

2. Our choices today determine tomorrow’s world. Our behaviour today determines the corona figures in a few weeks. These short lead times act as motivators to adjust our behaviour. Future climate change is also determined by our behaviour today. But because these effects will only be visible in a few decades, we are less motivated to take action today. We need to realize that, just as the number of infections does not decrease as long as we do not reduce our social contacts, every year will get warmer and warmer as long as we do not drastically reduce our carbon emissions.

3. Inherent uncertainty should not lead to passivity. Due to the probabilistic and exponential nature of a pandemic, experts cannot predict the exact effects of measures with 100% certainty. However, the direction of the march is clear: social distancing pending full vaccination coverage. For climate, too, it is impossible to predict with 100% certainty the effect of CO2 emissions on our climate. But here, too, the direction is clear: more rational use of energy, massive investments in already existing sustainable technology and research into new technology. The uncertainty inherent in complex issues such as the corona and climate crisis are no excuse for not taking action today.

4. Some risks are unacceptable. The pandemic shows us that a crisis can grow exponentially once certain thresholds are crossed. The consequences are incalculable if insufficient hospital capacity or oxygen is available. Nor are the consequences of climate change linear. Due to tipping points such as melting polar caps or thawing tundra, the same carbon emissions can increase the temperature rise from just 1.5°C to more than 4°C. In the first case, the world is stuck with a ‘flu bug’, while in the second we are dealing with a globally destabilising phenomenon. The question then arises whether we want to risk the worst-case scenario and gamble our (grand-)children’s world in the climate casino.

5. The solution must come from investments as well as behaviour. The pandemic showed that the solution is a combination of behavioural change and investment. We reduced our contacts and invested in technology (rapid development of a vaccine) and infrastructure (extra hospital capacity). Similarly, we need to fight climate change. We need to invest massively in sustainable technology and change our behaviour at the same time. We will have to drive electric cars and drive less; invest in renewable energy and use less electricity; adapt production processes and consume more consciously.

6. We are capable of intergenerational solidarity. We can only contain the coronavirus because everyone contributes. Even young people, who are less at risk than older people, have drastically adapted their behaviour to protect their parents and grandparents. The same logic plays out in the climate story, but in reverse. Climate change will mainly affect young people and their (grand-)children. Climate action is a form of solidarity of older with younger and future generations.

7. We need global cooperation. The pandemic shows us that no country is immune to a virus travelling around the world in planes. The corona crisis is not truly under control until every country is virus-free. In our fight against climate change, too, every country must cooperate. Every tonne of CO₂ emitted anywhere in the world contributes to climate change. Because of this tragedy of the commons, we can only tackle both pandemics and climate risks through global coordination and cooperation.

Hopefully, our world leaders will keep these lessons in mind when they gather in Glasgow in November for COP26. This climate summit should lead to concrete plans to limit temperature increases to no more than two degrees. Thus, 2021 will not only be remembered as the end of the corona crisis, but also as the real beginning of a solution to the climate crisis.