How can the lessons of COVID-19 help with climate action?

Globe ImageThe following article was published on the Opinion page of The Courier on 26 December 2020.

 ‘Going for zero!’ – the headline anyone alert to the climate emergency hopes for, but actually a discussion of Covid-19 elimination versus suppression. Certainly Victoria’s 50 plus donut days are a great achievement. But what about that other zero target – zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050?

Before the pandemic, 2020 was notable as the dawn of the crucial last decade for setting a trajectory for zero emissions by 2050 – a target requiring radical cuts annually. Decarbonising to keep global warming under 2ºC, and as close to 1.5ºC as possible, was agreed at the 2015 Paris CoP21 climate summit. That figure, 1.5ºC, was set by the IPCC as the best possible global case scenario, given time left to stop runaway climate change.

But in 2020, Covid-19 pushed climate change off the media agenda – just when it was finally getting some traction following the horrific Black Summer bushfires – understandable of course given lives lost. But it did crush hopes that community pressure might drive more radical climate action.

 However, the pandemic response – of governments, communities and individuals –has bought useful lessons, demonstrating surprising capacity for radical and rapid change – exactly what is required to contain global warming to 1.5ºC.

 A public health emergency, the pandemic prompted governments to drastic action – closing borders, mandating behavioural change. Measures some found hard to stomach, but which most accepted as essential for survival – their own and the community’s. Accepting that self-interest lay with supporting the greater good, the vast majority of us dutifully socially-distanced, masked-up, sanitised/ washed hands and stayed home when told to. 

 The first lesson for future climate action is the way the Federal and state governments deferred to medical scientists as the experts. Surely climate scientists should now be treated with similar respect and deference – particularly given the health impacts of climate change? 

 Second lesson: if public health emergencies warrant radical intervention, then so too does climate change, because it too is a public health emergency. Pollution from GHG emissions triggers 3000 deaths annually, being linked to lung cancer, asthma, heart disease and stroke. And heatwaves, Doctors for the Environment (DEA) note, have killed more Australians than any other natural event in the last 100 years. Climate change also increases the risk of infectious diseases such as dengue fever and Ross River virus, and of food-borne infections from increased growth of pathogens such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli. The DEA estimates national public health impacts of burning coal at $2.6 billion annually.

 Third lesson: overcoming neoliberal fixation on user-pays, for this one-in-one-hundred-year event, governments generally won cross-partisan support for massive public expenditure in the public interest. An attitudinal shift that is already in decline, nevertheless a lesson for more courageous politicians and one that offers economic rewards. Change can happen quickly and on a massive scale when the public backs it – conjuring political will. Large scale investment in renewable energy could make Australia a renewable energy superpower, reinvigorating manufacturing with cheaper energy and assisting development of green hydrogen, green steel and green aluminium. 

 Fourth lesson: as with Covid-19, the costs of climate inaction exceed the costs of action. Over and above the health impacts, there’s increased occurrence of extreme weather events – heatwaves, droughts, bushfires and floods – imperilling lives, infrastructure and food security. Climate change requires rapid governmental intervention comparable to or greater than the Covid response: emissions cuts from big polluters, a sunset date for coal-fired power stations, electrification of transport plus a host of radical decarbonising measures across all economic sectors. 

 Fifth lesson: consumerism declined as families in lockdown invented other possibilities. Many discovered gardening as an enjoyable, risk-free activity, with the bonus of fresh vegies and cost savings. Buy local campaigns took off, with Ballarat residents finding a host of niche food producers on their doorstep. There was the so-called kindness pandemic bringing new empathy for vulnerable neighbours. National CO2 emissions fell by 8% to their lowest levels in over two decades, as people stayed home and aviation halted. If this more considered approach to life could be harnessed to the cause of climate action, how much more might we reduce emissions? 

 Lastly, there’s the fact that the very damage climate change is wreaking on earth’s natural environment is a major contributor to viruses jumping species – as occurred with Covid-19. Along with more extreme weather events, climate change will bring more pandemics. We destroy the environment at our peril. It is not incidental to human wellbeing – perhaps our hardest lesson.

Across the world the pandemic has prompted new strategies and attitudes, which could equally well enable that rapid, radical action needed to fight climate change. This once-in-a-century shared global experience offers a unique learning opportunity. We cannot let stalled political leadership on climate stop local action. With distributed renewable energy within reach Australian communities are declaring themselves carbon neutral – going for net zero. Should Ballarat follow suit? 

Mary Debrett
President, BREAZE Inc.