Coronavirus presents us with terrible climate risk - and opportunity

4 April 2020

You could hardly conceive of a more potent metaphor for the blow coronavirus has dealt to the world’s fight to reduce carbon emissions and stave off the worst impacts of climate change.

As governments around the world switched focus from what was to have been the most important international climate conference in half a decade, British authorities converted Glasgow's Scottish Exhibition & Conference Centre, where the conference was to have been held, into a field hospital for up to a thousand pandemic victims, complete with testing facilities, laboratories and a morgue.

The now-postponed conference known as COP26 was seen by scientists - and many world leaders - as the last best chance for governments to set in place critical carbon emissions reduction targets.

The goal of the Paris Agreement was to limit warming to beneath a potentially devastating 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees. But even under the non-binding targets that nations set for themselves in Paris, it was clear by last year that those aims would not be met unless even more ambitious targets were set in Glasgow. This ratcheting effect was how the Paris framework was designed.

So today, even as the skies, roads and seas of the world empty of polluting engines, as factories shut down and power plants reduce their output and emissions due to the lockdown of around three billion people, scientists fret that governments will be sapped of the energy, will and treasure they will need to tackle climate change once the economy is kickstarted.

The debate over how governments rebuild economies after the peak of the pandemic has become the new front line of the climate war.

The decisions that governments make over the next few weeks over their economies will also decide whether or not the world avoids the worst climate impacts, says Anna Skarbek, director of ClimateWorks, a policy research centre associated with Monash University.

As with other experts contacted by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, Skarbek understands the decision to defer the Glasgow talks, saying that holding them next year gives governments the opportunity to develop stimulus measures in line with Paris goals.

“For the climate this is the time of greatest risk but also of greatest opportunity,” she says.

Should governments spend wisely they can decarbonise their economies even more quickly than they had expected to. “The flipside is that if they don’t, it is a double negative,” she said.

Read the full article in The Sydney Morning Herald, featuring commentary by Prof Mark Howden