Momentum On Climate Action May Be Hampered By the COVID-19 Crisis

29 April 2020

Addis Ababa — In addition to the public health impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has also been a big slowdown in the global economy, resulting in improved air quality and reduced emissions, particularly in China and Western economies, with emissions in China reducing by as much as 25% temporarily.

As is the case with major global crisis, it is estimated that the pandemic will result in a significant reduction in global fossil carbon dioxide in 2020; in 2009, global emissions dropped by 1.4% owing to the 2008 global financial crisis. However, the emissions reduction is only a temporary situation and there is a risk that emissions could increase substantially as economic activity picks up post-Covid-19, just as was the case post the 2008 financial crisis. In any case this temporary relief in emissions does not change the trajectory of the planet based on our current economic production and consumption models. Carbon dioxide already accumulated in the atmosphere will continue to affect the climate system for decades to come. However, radical reductions of emissions increase the possibility of ensuring that such interference is reversible. Increase emissions will put us back on a path to dangerous irreversible interference with the climate system, and hence increase the risk of a total collapse of the earth's systems.

This risk of emissions rebound is compounded by an economic 'bounce back' effect in a low oil price scenario where governments may be tempted to quick investments based on high emission activities to stimulate quick economic growth, when indeed the solution lies in policy and investment priorities focussed of low carbon development pathways. This is particularly important to note given the volatility of oil prices, where low prices never last, and investments that are made quickly and perhaps relatively cheaply cost a lot more in the long run, resulting in stranded assets. Emissions must decline substantially over this decade of action on the SDGs to 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050 if we are to stay on track to reach the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement.

Source: The Global Carbon Project

Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease - i.e. a disease that is caused by a pathogen that transfers from animals to humans. Climate change results in extreme weather events such as heatwaves, droughts and floods - factors that increase the likelihood of vector-borne diseases and increase stress on health systems. Climate change also causes land degradation and increases the loss of natural habitats for wild animals, resulting in more possibilities for human contact with such animals. With lack of access to energy, populations many countries in Africa depend substantially on biomass for their energy needs (see Figure xx). This also increases land degradation and encroachments into natural habitats. These factors, which increase the chances of human contacts with wild animals, also increase the risk of zoonotic diseases. As such Covid-19 is a harbinger of things to come without urgent and global action to tackle climate change, which will indeed kill a lot more people than recent pandemics. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that on a business as usual scenario, climate change will result in an additional 250,000 deaths per annum worldwide from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress between 2030 and 2050[1]. Furthermore, climate change increases rural - urban migration, thereby increasing the risks of a higher proportion of the population being impacted by infectious diseases such as Covid-19.

The lessons learned from the global response to Covid-19 give positive signals to dealing with the existential threat of climate change. Governments across the board have taken swift actions to deal with the pandemic, including financial stimulus and support packages. There has been great solidarity between countries and between communities, the medical profession and the science community with data sharing and support across borders. The global response to tackling climate change and building more resilient economies and societies will depend very much on how countries also take swift and transformative actions towards closing the financing gap to address climate change, especially given that the nationally determined contributions to climate action (NDCs) of most African countries depend substantially on the availability of climate finance and African countries already have less fiscal space to be able to inject stimulus into their economies.

While in the short term developed countries may be constrained to meet their climate finance obligations under the Paris Agreement, innovative ways need to be explored to ensure action on climate change does not relent post Covid-19. Strategies, including debt relief for African countries as well as innovations in mobilizing private sector finance to address climate change become even more urgent. Since debt relief does not require 'new money', it is perhaps an option that can be implemented more quickly. In terms of mobilizing private sector finance, the ECA's SDG7 Initiative for Africa[2] (which is already being piloted in a few countries) can support African countries to review their NDCs to increase bankable clean energy actions that could be fully financed from private sector resources. This is particularly relevant and timely in 2020, all Parties to the Paris Agreement are required to submit revised or new NDCs.

Building long term development strategies post-Covid-19 that are focussed on low carbon climate resilient development pathways bring multiple wins for society, economic and the environment. With the inevitable rise in unemployment that the economic impacts of Covid-19 will result in, an African economic rebound based on resilience and powered by the continent's abundant clean energy resources will create more jobs, enhance trade and contribute to global climate action, while addressing the continent's chronic energy access deficit. This will also strengthen the ability of countries to deal with other shocks that will come, ensuring that hospitals, schools and industry have the energy supply needed to keep essential services and supplies running.

According to António Guterres, the UN Secretary General, "we need to take on board the environmental signals and what they mean for our future and wellbeing, because COVID-19 is by no means a "silver lining" for the environment".

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has further warned that "the coronavirus pandemic risks disrupting key forecasting services, including early warning alerts around the world". In a statement, WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas urged Governments to support their national early warning and weather observing capacities despite the "severe challenges" caused by the COVID-19 crisis. The devastating impacts of climate change haven't stopped since the new coronavirus emerged in December, and neither have the "growing" number of weather-related disasters, he added.

[1] https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/climate-change-and-health

[2] The SDG7 Initiative for Africa, based on three mutually reinforcing pillars of sustainability, governance and finance, is designed to align the interests of countries and the private sector, and combine scale and speed to fast-track transformative finance from the private sector to invest in clean energy deployment in Africa.

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