Imperial College London

How will coronavirus shape our response to climate change?

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london traffic jam

The global response to the COVID-19 crisis could inform the fight against climate change, Imperial College London experts say.

The emergence of coronavirus reminds us of known possibilities that lurk in the background, but around which we haven’t voiced concerns or planned sufficiently. Dr Ajay Gambhir Grantham Institute

Imperial’s climate scientists, policy and economic experts say there are lessons to be learned from the pandemic that could put us in a better position to tackle climate change in the future.

Findings from Imperial suggest that social distancing measures to slow and suppress the spread of COVID-19 across Europe - including school closures and national lockdowns - have averted thousands of deaths.

Imperial academics reflect on what the pandemic is teaching us about responding to a global threat, and how we could apply that learning to the fight against climate change.

Known unknowns

In a blog for the Grantham Institute, Dr Ajay Gambhir argues that learning from the coronavirus crisis could put the world in a better position to address the many challenges we will face this century – including climate change.

Dr Gambhir outlines three key lessons: “First and most strikingly, experts are back on the agenda, and their place in informing public policy has been restored to some degree... This is welcome, and hopefully a lesson that will be retained for the climate challenge.”

Secondly, our ability to stick with new behaviours going forward is another important question, Dr Gambhir argued: “The central importance of behaviour change has been brought to the fore.

"Although it’s still too early to say how persistent behaviour changes might be, it is important to capture the notion that such changes can occur when it’s apparent that lives are more important than business-as-usual GDP growth.

Empty airport terminal
Empty airport terminal during COVID-19 crisis

"Taking advantage of some of the inevitable responses to coronavirus, such as less unnecessary air travel for business meetings and more home-working, supported by better videoconferencing facilities, could be powerful short-term actions worth embedding for the longer-term fight against climate change.

He continued: “Thirdly, the emergence of a pandemic such as coronavirus reminds us of the importance of “known unknowns” – known possibilities that lurk in the background, but around which we haven’t voiced concerns or planned sufficiently.

"There are numerous potential extremes in the realm of climate change, including climate system tipping points, or a serious deterioration in international relations and cooperation that makes global collective action to reduce emissions less likely.

“This pandemic reminds us that we can’t simply predict and then act, but that we rather need to design our institutions and policies to be resilient and flexible in the face of deep uncertainty.”

Since the publication of the blog, Dr Gambhir says he has noted an emergence of politicians claiming to be ‘guided by the science’, in the UK and abroad. He added: “Whilst input from scientific experts remains welcome and a useful precedent for further action on climate change, we must be careful that decisions which are inescapably moral and political are not placed solely on the shoulders of scientists, especially when significant uncertainties remain.” 

Coordinated efforts

Dr Laure de Preux, Assistant Professor of Economics at Imperial College Business School, highlights the important role that cooperation across borders plays in the face of a global crisis like Coronavirus, and how that can be applied to the fight against Climate Change.

people wearing masks in the bus. social distancing
Passangers wearing masks on the bus. social distancing

“The big challenges the world is facing, including the climate change crisis, can only be dealt with efficiently through international cooperation. We cannot only act individually; the benefits of our actions are multiplied if integrated into a global strategy. In the case of COVID-19, social distancing measures can only be truly effective if they are adopted at a large scale.”

Another thing that the coronavirus pandemic and climate change have in common, she argues, is that their impact is most keenly felt by the most vulnerable people in society.

“Social distancing measures, and the their effect on the economy, will surely most impact individuals with with low or irregular income, or with a poor health.

“My colleagues and I, and others as well, have demonstrated that climate change also impacts more strongly the most vulnerable. There is no doubt that the sooner we truly deal with climate change, the greater the benefits will be for all of us and the lower the costs of the damage. We have to be proactive, not reactive.”

Renée van Diemen, Senior Scientist at Imperial’s Centre for Environmental Policy, adds: “The world’s response to COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of international science-led cooperation when responding to global challenges”

“This is also crucial for the longer-term challenge of climate change and how we mitigate emissions and adapt to impacts in the immediate future”.

Lessons for a green transition

Dr Heather Graven, senior lecturer in Atmospheric Physics in the Department of Physics at Imperial, says that the coronavirus crisis brings important insights into how the atmosphere responds to sudden changes to the economy.

Cars on a road with pollution
reducing road transport and electricity production can lower carbon dioxide emissions

“To stop climate change, we need to stop burning fossil fuels. The lockdown measures show how reducing road transport and electricity production can lower carbon dioxide emissions, and I am keenly interested in how these changes have impacted the atmosphere and how atmospheric measurements can help us understand emissions changes happening now and into the future.”

“However, it may be disappointing that this unprecedented economic disruption has been forecast to reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions by only 8%. To really address climate change, we need a major shift in our energy production to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. It is helpful to use less energy and, amidst the tragedy of the coronavirus, people (and animals) have also seen the benefits of reduced noise and air pollution during the lockdown. But we cannot address climate change without abandoning fossil fuel energy.”

“During the COVID-19 crisis, we have seen how connected we all are and, importantly, how it is possible to work together and mobilise resources when needed. We have the opportunity now to work together as a global community to rebuild our economy and our lives to be more sustainable and resilient.”

A greener and fairer future

Dr Alex Koberle argued that our response to the pandemic could help shape a sustainable and more resilient future.

Air pollution in London
Air pollution in London

In a blog for the Grantham Institute, he said: “The COVID-19 global pandemic is pushing institutions and governments to their limits. People are worried about their health, their families, losing their jobs and the uncertainty the future holds. The economic fallout of this crisis is still uncertain too, and we may well wake up in a few months to a world completely transformed.

“This crisis has exposed many vulnerabilities that can be traced back to the unsustainable development that has ravaged the environment, and yet failed to eradicate poverty and hunger. Governments should take a moment to reflect, learn from past mistakes and redirect development towards a sustainable future. Medical professionals are putting their lives on the line to contain the virus; decision-makers owe it to them to rebuild the world in a way that makes it more resilient to similar situations in the future”

Dr Koberle outlined three ways that we could build resilience following the crisis, including building more energy efficient and resilient homes, tackling air pollution - which was shown to substantially increase the probability of people contracting a SARS (another coronavirus) infection that lead to their death in the 2002 outbreak, and embedding long-term resilience in monetary policy

He added: “Climate change must be addressed in the context of sustainable development. Shutting down the economy and society will not solve climate change. But solve it we must.

"The priority now is to control the pandemic and save lives. As the interventions begin to have an effect and we start to emerge from this terrible crisis, it will be time to consider how new investments can help us build a cleaner, greener and fairer future.”

  • This story was co-authored by Simon Levey (Communications Manager) and Kat Petersen (Campaign Manager) at the Grantham Institute.

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Deborah Evanson

Deborah Evanson
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Email: d.evanson@imperial.ac.uk

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