The sobering lessons for climate change that COVID-19 teaches us - but is anyone listening?

Paul Gleeson Paul Gleeson
Group Director, Sustainability & Managing Director, Energy – Australia & New Zealand
14 April 2020
6 min read

The hardest lessons to learn are the ones that stay with us the longest. If listened to, and absorbed, the really tough lessons we face can have the greatest impact. If that saying is true, what does this lesson of a global pandemic, the likes of which have never been seen before, teach us and our leaders for the other big challenges we face? What does it tell us we need to do in the face of climate change or other global challenges?

Will it expose our inability to quickly embrace a common platform for dealing with an existential threat, rendering us unable to overcome self-interest? Or will it teach us that the pathway to action has to find a common narrative between the needs of keeping countries and economies moving whilst finding the agreed transition path to the sustainable future we know we need?

One clear lesson from COVID-19 is that none of us like abrupt shocks to our system. Perhaps the lingering memories of today's pain points will become the seeds of more definitive action addressing the climate change challenge.

Very few voices have argued for ignoring the COVID-19 pandemic: they might want a quicker shutdown, or a faster re-opening of the economy; they might argue over the human cost compared to the costs of shutting down businesses. But there are few heads completely in the sand.

At some point, we'll be on the other side of this crisis and we'll have all of the reports and white papers to draw on. But for those of us involved in climate-centred strategies, the COVID-19 response is already yielding lessons.

The PR of emergencies

You might have seen the meme advising that climate change needs to hire coronavirus' publicist. The political communication around COVID-19 has been overwhelmingly on the side of caution and action, with detailed cost-benefit descriptions of what has to be sacrificed economically in order to mitigate public health risks.

This hasn't just been explained in terms of how much business will be lost, but also how much governments have to spend. Sitting on our hands has not been an option and governments around the world have taken the rapid, decisive action to shut down their economies rather than let this virus take hold. Compare this to the constant wranglings, denial and arguments over climate action. Of course:

The biggest difference between climate change and COVID-19 is immediacy, both in terms of time and space. Coronavirus kills people today and we can see and understand the consequences on TV, radio, internet and social media. But climate change is incremental, discussed in terms of 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius of warming over decades.

Coronavirus is transmitted via the immediacy of space – my actions can be directly traced to impacts on my neighbours, friends and family – or anyone else within arm's length. But my actions relating to climate change are felt by faceless, nameless people in far-removed places, and aren't traced nearly as neatly to my own actions.

There's also no uniformity of approach for the climate: one group of nations commits to decarbonising their economies; another says its emissions will grow for another 20 years; and another group seek reparations from the big emitters.

A divided response is a confused response.

Impacts of a global economy

The COVID-19 and climate crises have something in common that many of us do not want to talk about. The need for a global transport system – for freight and people – and the emissions that come with it are already responsible for almost one quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The OECD estimates the number of tonne-kilometres of freight in our transport systems will triple to 2050. This is quite aside from the extra energy requirements of regions that build industrial capacity where none previously existed.

The corresponding problem of globalisation that has led to coronavirus is the speed and ease with which the virus could originate in Wuhan and be spread to the entire world via commercial global transport systems. The first thing to be shut down by governments in the COVID-19 pandemic was international arrivals at airports. We all accepted this instinctively, very quickly.

By comparison, the climate change threat is unlikely to ever see a shut down in global transport and travel. Indeed, transport – air travel in particular – has been a 'hands-off' zone for many when it comes to deep decarbonisation.

Interestingly, one likely shift post pandemic will be more local manufacturing as countries look to secure their own supply chains. Again, the climate may be an unintended beneficiary, given commercial international freight has been one of the fastest growing sources of emissions in the past decade.

A sign of systems pushed too far

The coronavirus response has been couched in scientific language but is intuitive: we talk of social distancing and community transmissions, closing our borders, quarantining ships and stockpiling critical supplies. None of these concepts are unusual to humans – even to those who think governments are over-reacting.

We instinctively understand that the human social system is one of smaller groups, and that unfettered travel can be a gateway to disease. So self-isolation is annoying, but we understand it; and those who can, immediately swap travel for Skype, Zoom or Teams.

Yet exchanging travel for FaceTime was also a choice three months and six months and a year ago, when the imperative was addressing climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But we didn't 'shut down' our travel, let alone entire economies. We told ourselves that video conferencing just wasn't the same as being there. As it happens: Systems thinking is also the basis of climate change.

The earth's system strikes a balance and the release of too many man-made greenhouse gases into the atmosphere eventually tips the climate system to a dangerous point. This should or could also be an intuitive human concept, as straightforward as the idea that social distancing holds us back from a public health tipping point – but we struggle to cut through.

The next phase

There is much to be learned from the coronavirus responses, but perhaps governments dealing with this can also learn from climate strategists. As governments roll out wage subsidy packages and low-risk business loans, the next phase – the economic reconstruction phase – is going to entail a lot of stimulus spending.

It is important that amidst the inevitable construction of roads and freeways, the infrastructure build-out includes the assets required of the decarbonising world.

In a country like Australia, where more than 70 per cent of our electricity still comes from fossil fuels, this stimulus-construction phase might be the once-in-a-generation chance to build what would otherwise be put-off.

New interconnectors between South Australia and New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria to enable the deployment of more utility scale wind, solar and pumped hydro; kickstarting the hydrogen industry with a focus not just on production facilities but also the transport and industrial applications which will provide the demand; distributed energy resources like residential batteries and energy management systems that mean we have to produce less power at source during peak times. To name a few.

Perhaps this is where COVID-19 and climate change can crossover? One is immediate while the other is incremental. If we have to stimulate our economy out of the hibernation we are putting it into, why not build the infrastructure that gives both our communities and the planet a fighting chance in the long term?

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Paul Gleeson
Written by
Paul Gleeson

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