24 March 2020 – Climate change, biodiversity loss and deforestation are contributing drivers behind pandemics. Like COVID-19, these cross-cutting challenges do not observe national borders and can be managed only through collective action, write Sandrine Dixson-Declève and Johan Rockström.
Sandrine Dixson-Declève is co-president of The Club of Rome and co-founder of The Planetary Emergency Partnership.
Johan Rockström is professor and director at The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and co-founder of The Planetary Emergency Partnership.
COVID-19 is infecting millions of people around the world, claiming thousands of lives, with numbers likely to rise exponentially in the coming weeks. The virus is also causing massive disruptions in the global economy and financial markets, amplified by a trade war on oil, which is already starting to cause economic hardship for people around the globe.
While we fully commend the European Institutions, ECB, EIB and member states for their swift efforts to confront the immediate threat of the virus and direct well-needed capital to economic recovery, we call on EU heads of state to ensure that recovery plans do not undermine climate neutrality pathways and European Green deal objectives due to clear feedback loops that will impact future public health.
It is important to acknowledge that the planet is facing a deeper and longer-term crisis, rooted in a number of interconnected global challenges.
Recent research on the ecology of diseases suggests that climate change, biodiversity loss and deforestation are contributing drivers behind pandemics, interacting with high levels of global travel, trade and high-density living.
Outbreaks of animal-borne and other infectious diseases such as Ebola, SARS, bird flu and now COVID-19, caused by a novel coronavirus, are on the rise and this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Like COVID-19, climate change, biodiversity loss, and financial collapse do not observe national or even physical borders. These problems can be managed only through collective action that starts long before they become full-blown crises.
They must be acted upon not as singular threats but as a potential series of shocks and long-term risks to human health and livelihoods, economic prosperity and planetary stability as targeted by the World Economic Forum this year.
No one is underestimating the incredible disruption to the global economy and across society from COVID-19 nor the gravity of the situation for those who have lost or will lose loved ones, but what this pandemic has revealed is that overnight transformational change is possible. A different world, a different economy is suddenly dawning.
This is an unprecedented opportunity to move away from unmitigated growth at all costs and the old fossil fuel economy, and deliver a lasting balance between people, prosperity and our planetary boundaries.
Green Deal should be Europe’s new Marshall Plan
In the midst of a global health emergency and imminent economic recession, the importance of the European Green Deal has become even greater. It must be the framework for responding to the current crisis and the broader planetary emergency, of which it is a part.
As drafted, the European Green Deal already aspires to protect the health and well-being of citizens from environment-related risks and impacts and establish a toxic-free environment, deliver healthy and sustainable diets, and protect biodiversity.
The previous Commission’s Juncker Plan was an effective tool to focus investment and minds on clear priorities for Europe.
The European Green Deal should do the same with a greater link between the converging tipping points of public health, climate change and biodiversity and ensure we re-direct perverse subsidies and private and public capital towards solutions that promote a just transition for resilient societies and economies.
This should be Europe’s new Marshall Plan. A plan that fosters an integrated approach between the European Green Deal and an economy that works for people as prescribed by President Ursula von der Leyen.
A plan that also addresses digital optimisation as a tool to enhance the long-term quality of life for all citizens not only when they are in a pandemic lockdown.
Rather than delaying critical initiatives such as the “Farm to Fork” and Biodiversity strategies, the EU institutions and its member states should address these strategies as future-proofing mechanisms.
For example, shifting from industrial to regenerative agriculture is feasible today and generates immediate economic and health benefits. Redirecting capital and subsidies to catalyse regenerative practices would allow us to sequester carbon in the soil at a rate that is sufficient to reverse the climate crisis.
Moreover, doing so would turn a profit, enhance economic and environmental resilience, create jobs, protect biodiversity and improve wellbeing in both rural and urban communities.
Luckily, there is a very strong business case for dealing systemically with the planetary emergency – the convergence of crises referred to above – and the health pandemic simultaneously.
For example, there is no good reason not to be phasing out fossil fuels and deploying renewable energy technologies, most of which are now globally available and already cheaper than fossil fuels in many cases.
With the recent oil-price plunge, perverse fossil-fuel subsidies can and should be eliminated, as the G7 and many European countries have pledged to do by 2025. These subsidies should be redirected to proper green and social infrastructure including well-needed health system upgrades.
At a time when we need to make sure we can guarantee a stable economy and create new jobs post COVID-19, the economic case for Green Deal solutions is also clear.
According to the New Climate Economy, more ambitious action to address climate change could deliver more than $26 trillion in net global economic benefits between now and 2030 compared with business-as-usual, including the creation of more than 65 million new low-carbon jobs.
As humans we’re resilient. We’re entrepreneurial. We begin again. The future can be positive and we can learn from our failings. The European project is itself an inspiring example of that.
We therefore call upon European leaders to embrace this moment of reflection and upheaval to adopt economic recovery plans that create more resilient communities, greater health and wellbeing, and shared prosperity on a healthy planet so that we can truly emerge from this emergency stronger and more resilient.