To survive the challenges we must reinforce respect for science and nature, sensible public policy and the interconnected world.
From early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, a common refrain has been, “At least maybe now we will get serious about addressing climate change.” One can certainly see the logic behind this thinking. The terrible toll the pandemic has taken should remind us of the importance of three things that are also necessary to tackle global warming: science, public policy, and international cooperation. We should therefore listen to the scientists who have been warning for decades that unchecked greenhouse-gas emissions would have severe environmental consequences. The fact that some of these consequences – including wildfires, cyclones, and even a plague of locusts in Africa – have dramatically appeared in the same year as COVID-19 would seem to reinforce the message.
They might sound unrelated, but the COVID-19 crisis and the climate and biodiversity crises are deeply connected.
Business closures. Travel restrictions. Working and learning from home. These and other dramatic responses to COVID-19 have caused sharp reductions in economic activity — and associated fossil fuel consumption — around the world.
As a result, many nations are reporting significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions for the year 2020, edging them a bit closer to meeting the initial emissions targets to which they committed under the Paris Agreement on climate change. While the pandemic may have accelerated progress toward these targets over the past year, will that trend continue through this decade and beyond?
Assuming a return to pre-pandemic levels of employment by 2035, the study finds that COVID-19 produces a steep, 8.2 percent reduction in global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020, but only a 2 percent reduction in 2035.
Assuming that Paris Agreement national climate targets through 2030 are fulfilled despite economic disruption, the lower GDP numbers result in a 3.4 percent reduction in annual greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, but only a 1 percent reduction in 2030.
Researchers has also noted that while various structural changes in the economy that may result from the pandemic (e.g., less air travel) could reduce emissions further, they are unlikely to contribute substantially to global efforts to meet the long-term climate goals of the Paris Agreement.
“Our projections of global economic activity with and without the pandemic show only a small impact of COVID-19 on emissions in 2030 and beyond,” says MIT Joint Program Co-Director Emeritus John Reilly, the study’s lead author. “While pandemic-induced economic shocks will likely have little direct effect on long-term emissions, they may well have a significant indirect effect on the level of investment that nations are willing to commit to meet or beat their Paris emissions targets.”
Studies shows that reduced economic activity resulting from COVID-19 lowers the cost of meeting these targets, making such commitments more politically palatable.
Keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius — the central goal of the Paris Agreement — will require further commitment and action by countries worldwide to reduce emissions.
Coronavirus, Climate Change, and the Environment
A Conversation on COVID-19 with Dr. Aaron Bernstein, Director of Harvard Chan C-CHANGE
Does climate change affect the transmission of coronavirus?
We don’t have direct evidence that climate change is influencing the spread of COVID-19, but we do know that climate change alters how we relate to other species on Earth and that matters to our health and our risk for infections.
As the planet heats up, animals big and small, on land and in the sea, are headed to the poles to get out of the heat. That means animals are coming into contact with other animals they normally wouldn’t, and that creates an opportunity for pathogens to get into new hosts.
Many of the root causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics. Deforestation, which occurs mostly for agricultural purposes, is the largest cause of habitat loss worldwide. Loss of habitat forces animals to migrate and potentially contact other animals or people and share germs. Large livestock farms can also serve as a source for spillover of infections from animals to people. Less demand for animal meat and more sustainable animal husbandry could decrease emerging infectious disease risk and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
We have many reasons to take climate action to improve our health and reducing risks for infectious disease emergence is one of them.
Does air pollution increase the risk of getting coronavirus? Does it make symptoms worse?
Recent research from Rachel Nethery, Xiauo Wu, Francesca Dominici and other colleagues at Harvard Chan has found that people who live in places with poor air quality are more likely to die from COVID-19 even when accounting for other factors that may influence risk of death such as pre-existing medical conditions, socioeconomic status, and access to healthcare.
This finding is consistent with prior research that has shown that people who are exposed to more air pollution and who smoke fare worse with respiratory infections than those who are breathing cleaner air, and who don’t smoke.
In places where air pollution is a routine problem, we have to pay particular attention to individuals who may be more exposed or vulnerable than others to polluted air, such as the homeless, those who don’t have air filtration in their homes, or those whose health is already compromised. These individuals may need more attention and support than they did even before coronavirus came along.
How likely are we to see infectious disease spread as a result of climate change?
Climate change has already made conditions more favorable to the spread of some infectious diseases, including Lyme disease, waterborne diseases such as Vibrio parahaemolyticus which causes vomiting and diarrhea, and mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. Future risks are not easy to foretell, but climate change hits hard on several fronts that matter to when and where pathogens appear, including temperature and rainfall patterns. To help limit the risk of infectious diseases, we should do all we can to vastly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.
Climate change and global health policy are largely treated as separate issues by the public and media. Do we need to adjust our thinking?
Yes. The separation of health and environmental policy is a dangerous delusion. Our health entirely depends on the climate and the other organisms we share the planet with. We need to bring these communities together. Some progress has been made in addressing the risk of pathogen spillover from animals into people. But largely we still view the environment, and life on earth, as separate. We can and must do better if we want to prevent the next infectious pandemic. That means we must combat climate change and do far more to safeguard the diversity of life on earth, which is being lost at a rate not seen since the dinosaurs—and more than half of life on earth—went extinct 65 million years ago.
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