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Covid-19 vs Climate Change: What Can We Learn?

June 10, 2020

By Kim J. DeRidder

Manila before Covid-19.

Unlike its health, economic, or gendered impacts, Covid-19 has yet to cause an overt crisis for Asia’s environment. On the contrary, with factories closed and roads empty, the smog-layered skies above most major cities are clear blue for the first time in years. With humans indoors, deer and monkeys are venturing out to explore Asia’s now-empty urban jungles, songbirds are heard in cities, and great leatherback turtles are laying eggs on Phuket beaches in record numbers.

But is Covid-19 really a boon for the environment? The jury is still out. While greenhouse gas emissions are significantly down, both China and the United States are already relaxing emission controls to ease economic pressures. When Covid-19 is finally reined in, economies are likely to rebound with a vengeance, burning even more, now-cheaper fossil fuels. Asia’s natural resources are likewise taking a hit, with millions of unemployed day laborers who have returned to their villages now relying heavily on local forests, rivers, and oceans for food and other basic needs. Reef and forest destruction is also increasing due to illegal logging, mining, and fishing that are taking advantage of lax enforcement during this time.

Either way, the global health crisis has brought our relationship with the environment into sharp focus, raising many new questions. Will we continue to see an uptick of life-threatening zoonotic diseases like Covid-19, SARS, MERS, and Ebola as the planet’s last remaining wildlands are invaded by humans? Why was pandemic risk not incorporated into national disaster-management strategies despite the specific reference in the Sendai Framework? Can’t we develop a better safety net for the socioeconomically disenfranchised in times of crisis than simply sending them back to their villages to further burden dwindling natural resources?

If humanity can put our economies on hold as a safeguard from a global threat like Covid-19, why haven’t we been able to take similar measures to confront a global killer like climate change?

Perhaps the most intriguing question relates to the dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions caused by the global lockdown. If humanity can put our economies on hold as a safeguard from a global threat like Covid-19, why haven’t we been able to take similar measures to confront a global killer like climate change? The latter does not require that we put our economies on hold. But it does require us to revamp the energy and consumption infrastructure that drives them, transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy resources—from consumption to sustainability. There are more than a few parallels between the two crises: death and disruption on a global scale, heavy reliance on science to inform policy responses, and the powerlessness of those most affected to influence what mitigation measures are taken.

By the time the last of 120 countries worldwide went on lockdown, on April 23, Covid-19 was responsible for three out of every thousand deaths globally, which is both tragic and alarming. It is notable, however, that as far back as 17 years ago, climate change was already estimated to be responsible for three out of every thousand deaths every year, from increased heat exposure, malaria, dengue, malnutrition, and diarrhea alone. This ratio didn’t account for the thousands more dying annually in increasingly frequent climate-related disasters such as floods, drought, and cyclones. Today we know this metric is only the tip of the melting iceberg. The World Health Organization now tracks deaths caused by the drivers of global warming—namely, black carbon, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides, together with ozone and carbon monoxide. The number? Eight million each year. That’s 140 out of every thousand deaths globally—46 times the proportion of deaths from Covid-19 at the time of global lockdown. And we have only just begun to feel the effects of climate change. Far more serious impacts are projected for the future, including ecosystem collapses, extreme weather events, sea level rise, and more, ensuring that climate-related mortality rates will only rise.

It would cost the United States about $5.7 trillion to transition completely to renewable energy over 15 years, while it has already committed $6 trillion to Covid-19 in the past three months.

So why hasn’t the world responded to climate change with anything resembling the speed and political will it has marshaled to battle the coronavirus? Cost? Apparently not. By way of example, it would cost the United States about $5.7 trillion to transition completely to renewable energy over 15 years, while it has already committed $6 trillion to Covid-19 in the past three months. Granted, transitioning the entire global economy to renewable energy will be considerably more expensive, but it will surely be less than the monumental costs of a global climate crisis. So, if money isn’t the deciding factor, what is?

Immediacy. Research shows that people not only respond much more decisively to immediate and tangible threats, but tend to exhibit avoidance behaviors toward future threats—no matter how potentially grave. It is this immediacy of Covid-19 that mobilized the political will to halt economies, enforce lockdowns, and spend trillions. In contrast, the lack of immediate consequences from climate change has left many nations subordinating clean energy to economic priorities. In UNESCAP’s latest assessment of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Asia-Pacific region is behind on all 17 SDGs, including clean energy and climate action. Home to 60 percent of the world’s population, 99 of the world’s 100 most polluted cities, and five of the 10 countries at greatest risk from climate change, the region continues to spend $240 billion on fossil fuel subsidies, while investing only $150 billion in renewables.

Countries must proactively spend billions to “green” their economies. As we marshal huge resources for post-Covid-19 economic recovery, we have a unique opportunity to make a paradigm shift. A recent Oxford study shows recovery packages can, in fact, deliver on both economic and climate goals, but only if governments act decisively with strategic investments that decouple economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions while fostering behavior changes in work and transport practices.

As we contemplate the conditions—rapid urbanization and development—that have contributed to the unleashing and spread of viruses like Covid-19, we must acknowledge this pivotal moment in the trajectory of human impact on the planet. As with the current pandemic, so too with climate change: the longer we delay necessary action, the more far-reaching, costly, and lethal will be the consequences. If we must witness disaster up close to be moved to action, then disasters like Covid-19 are perhaps our most illuminating view of how bad the future could be. And the blue skies we enjoy today could be a different window—offering a glimpse of the future we all hope for. The policies we embed in stimulus packages in response to this global pandemic are key to the future we choose.

The post is part of the #Covid-19 and Asia series, copublished with the Devpolicy Blog.

Kim DeRidder is The Asia Foundation’s director of Environment Programs. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related programs: Environment and Climate Action


  1. Great timely piece, Kim. Thanks!

  2. I am writing a book on a similar topic and was very excited reading this piece that further confirmed my position on the subject matter. i even recommend a global consent on willingly shutting down the world travels, manufacture, flying, trans-shipment , work etc. and just taking a brake will do the world a lot of good and save and protect humanity from self destruction.

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