Pandemic action and climate action must go hand in hand

27 Oktober 2020

We’re at a critical juncture for overcoming not one but two of the biggest crises facing humanity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated our political, cultural and economic consciousness in 2020 and has transformed countless lives. And when it comes to the pandemic, we’re far from out of the woods yet.

Unfortunately, though, climate change will not wait for COVID-19 to be vanquished. The climate crisis continues, and the risks it presents loom ever larger. To continue the analogy, not only are we still in the woods, but the woods have been set ablaze.

Pausing work on creating climate security now would be disastrous. The Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) suggests that doing nothing will increase the number of people in need of humanitarian aid due to extreme climate events, like wildfire and storms, by 50% every year. The figure already stands at 108 million people.

However, the humanitarian consequences of the pandemic and the climate crisis are not all they have in common. The routes to tackling each are intrinsically linked.

The global collaboration underway to tackle COVID-19 — in the form of economic stimulus, rethinking of supply chains and technological and scientific breakthroughs — must now also pave the way for climate action.

Putting climate action at the heart of stimulus 

International responses to COVID-19 have demonstrated the ability for nations to take decisive and sweeping action in the face of crises. Without delving into the specificities of the public health response, one thing governments in the global North have in common is a willingness to commit vast sums to tackling the pandemic.

From the US, which has approved nearly $3 trillion in virus-related relief to the EU’s €750 billion agreement, it’s clear serious efforts are being made to defuse COVID-19’s economic shock.

Lifting people out of poverty can be done sustainably (photo: Flickr)

Yet even these astronomical figures have to be contextualized. Reports suggest that a rise in temperature of 2 degrees Celsius will cost the globe $69 trillion by 2100. An effective approach to building climate resilience meanwhile could cost up to $300 billion annually.

In comparison, the World Health Organization suggests pandemic preparedness requires just $3.4 billion each year (based on prevention, rather than tackling the current pandemic).

What these numbers mean is that the current once-in-a-generation stimulus packages being built must put climate security and resilience at their very core. This is an opportunity to build back an economy that can both absorb the shock of COVID-19 and stand strong as the crashing wave of climate crises hits it. The risk of not doing so is that a just-recovering economy crumbles creating a future recession even graver than the one at present.

But where can COVID-19 relief packages tackle climate concerns? And, how can individual businesses aim to build climate security as they respond to COVID-19? There are two areas of particular importance: strengthening supply and value chains, and boosting scientific expertise and the availability of technology.

Strengthening supply and value chains 

Some of the tensest moments and starkest images in the first few weeks of the pandemic were supply chain related. For frontline workers, the lack of adequate PPE and the struggle to move it between nations swiftly. For the everyday consumer, the empty shop shelves and a lack of basic goods.

These moments serve as a wake-up call to organizations, including governments and businesses, to strengthen their supply chains. This goes not only for those in the health sector, but food producers, and given the need to rebuild the economy rapidly, even producers of consumer goods.

Many organizations will be looking to shift production closer to home, increase domestic suppliers or redesign products to make components easier to source. Certain businesses will also potentially reduce suppliers or bulk-buy to become less reliant on an ‘always-on’ supply chain.

As many take a closer look at their value chain and how it can be strengthened, it’s crucial to think beyond the pandemic. Where are the climate weaknesses? How can risk be reduced from flooding or drought? Is the business aware of the climate risk both domestically and for international partners?

Answering these questions is challenging. While some may be able to shift operations to localized, simplified chains, for many, the world of global business will remain interconnected and complex. To manage that complexity businesses should embrace the scientific community and the solutions they can provide.

Mapping and forecasting climate risk

Foresight and swift action are essential to any crisis response. Just as we’ve seen implementing lockdowns only a matter of days earlier can have a huge impact on cutting the spread of COVID-19, only 24 hours notice of a storm’s arrival can cut the resulting losses by 30%.

Meanwhile, alongside the growing role of science-led policy making globally, governments should engage the climate-science community deeply when it comes to constructing stimulus packages. This should not only inform low-carbon investment, but where climate resilience can be strengthened, particularly through forecasting.

Likewise, individual organizations should engage with climate experts, and the technology they have built, on how to mitigate risk and build security. Such expertise and technology can help businesses to take a closer look at the impact climate will have on their value chain, and provide actionable insights into tackling those risks.

New advances in AI and Earth Science can offer businesses a way to measure and mitigate climate risk. These tools work by taking all the complex climate data from disparate sources and signals and using it to create bespoke forecasts and climate maps for different organizations. These dynamic tools can be used to manage assets, drive security and predict climate catastrophes before they hit.

A more resilient future 

This is the most challenging time in living memory and our crises will continue. But, there is reason to be hopeful. The decisive, science led action and significant stimulus packages being put together demonstrate a capacity for collective, informed, action on a scale never before undertaken.

Putting climate security and resilience at the center of the current approach is now key to ensuring we move forward as organizations, governments and an international community, stronger than ever before.

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