On the other hand, the pandemic response has led to precipitous drops in air pollution. By some estimates, cleaner air during the crisis has avoided 11,000 deaths in Europe. Globally, greenhouse gas emissions are projected to fall by 5.5% this year, a consequence of the confinement of 3 billion people at home and the corresponding economic jolt. And yet, even this massive reduction — which is decidedly temporary — would not yield a trajectory to limit global warming to 1.5°C. According to the latest science, this would require a 7.6% reduction per year. The transformations required are truly colossal.
But there is a glimmer of hope. For if COVID-19 is a precautionary tale, it is also a crash course in the possible. In our individual and collective innovations to meet and adapt to this crisis, in the connectivity that makes it a shared experience, and perhaps most of all in the elevation of health to centre-stage in our minds, new trajectories are becoming more feasible and more likely.
COVID-19 has led to experiments at all scales. It has changed the ways people live, work and move, their relationships with government and employment, and in some cases it has accelerated existing trends. To name a few, remote working has become the norm; more consumer purchasing has moved online; cities are experimenting with converting streets to accommodate walking and cycling, and international travel has virtually ceased — albeit temporarily.
These and other developments will not persist unabated, but they will leave their mark on people’s lives and our post-COVID-19 world in unpredictable ways.
More immediately, a rapidly emerging consensus demands that the stimulus devoted to combating the economic consequences of the pandemic charts a healthier course for the future, asserting that we have a responsibility to do things differently. Critically, this position is embraced by much of the business community, which recognizes that business-as-usual is untenable, that we cannot continue operating as we have in the past, and that the new normal must have at its core the health of people and planet.
To date, more than 700 companies globally have signed a host of open letters to world leaders, calling on them to ensure that economic stimulus packages tackle both the impacts of the coronavirus and the ongoing climate crisis. Meanwhile, over 4,500 health professionals and more than 350 organizations, representing at least 40 million health workers worldwide, have urged the leaders of the G20 to ensure a green recovery.
So, while the pain of COVID-19 is devastating, it has created a policy window for climate action that six months ago would have been unimaginable. In the next year, trillions of dollars will be spent on recovery plans, stimulus packages and company bailouts. During this historic moment, governments can change the course of the future, investing in technologies that prevent systemic risks, including those presented by climate change, drastically reducing emissions and improving societal resilience. Business must play a key role, applying its innovative capacity, solution focus and financial acumen to the problem. If we are to avoid a repeat of the dramatic human and economic situation we confront today, governments, business and society must collaborate to:
1. Adopt science-based net-zero strategies. Both businesses and governments can address health and climate risks by adopting clear, science-based pathways to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. In the process this will create a 100% clean-energy system, accelerate the transition to zero-carbon mobility, build the zero-carbon heavy industries of the future and harness the potential of natural climate solutions. In addition to tackling the climate crisis, these pathways will generate decent jobs and safeguard health and wellbeing. Economic stimulus in the wake of COVID-19 should be dedicated to enabling these pathways.
2. Better account for and address current and future health risks. Global health security frameworks must encompass all hazards, including those arising from climate change. Preparing for and addressing these risks requires fostering collective, committed planning and prevention for global threats across all nations of the world and all stakeholder domains.
3. Redesign cities for better lives. COVID-19 has made visible the deep vulnerabilities and inequities that pervade so many of our cities and our urban ways of life. In the post-pandemic era, we must rethink urban design, planning and management and our relationships to urban systems. Stimulus responses to COVID-19 must promote healthier air, healthier mobility, healthier work and healthier play, among others. They must point the way to cities in which all citizens have access to security and opportunity, and they must put health at the heart of urban life.
To paraphrase George Santayana, we are not condemned to repeat the present, if only we can recognize and remember its lessons. This is, or should be, a clarifying moment: we can neither ignore the science nor look aside. We have a responsibility to build back healthier, and in doing so for tomorrow, we do it for perpetuity.