Five things COVID-19 and lockdown have taught us about the climate crisis

20 May 2021
6 min read

The key lessons that will help us better mitigate climate change

The events of the last year have resulted in massive global disruption. Around the world, COVID-19 has dealt social and economic blows the likes of which have not been seen before in this lifetime. It has been – to use a word that’s since taken on new meaning – unprecedented.

The scale and consequence of the pandemic has caused widespread shock, with many expressing disbelief that the global community – with its advances in healthcare and technology, and its digital connectedness – could so easily be bought to its knees. The good news, though, is that we’re now gradually getting back up. Cases are (largely) falling worldwide, and the advent of efficient vaccines means COVID-19 is now on its way to classification as endemic, rather than pandemic. There are many reasons to be optimistic.

However, it leaves in its wake a much larger, pervasive and potentially devastating crisis: that of the climate. The two have much in common. The COVID-19 pandemic caused widespread loss and suffering – emotional, physical and financial. The climate crisis – if left unchecked – will result in the same (some analysts estimate that by 2050 we’ll be facing the same overall level of disruption every single year). The pandemic demands everyone play their part in overcoming it – wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, getting vaccinated. The climate crisis also requires everyone do their bit, whether that’s insulating your home or switching to a green energy provider. Both crises require strong leadership, innovation and investment.

The difference, of course, is that while the pandemic unravelled in a matter of weeks and bought with it sudden, acute change to everyday life, the climate crisis is moving comparatively slower. If the pandemic is a minute in time, the climate crisis is a day. And without this sense of urgency, change is harder to facilitate. And yet it’s no less important –  there is no vaccine for climate change, after all.

But there is a silver lining. The pandemic has knocked the accepted ‘way of doing things’ sideways, and has given us reason to pause and reassess the global norm. The last year has been terrible and extraordinary, but it has bought to the fore a number of important lessons that can guide our approach to the climate crisis as we look towards a COVID-free future.

1. People want to live sustainably

Lockdown has been a period of reflection, where we’ve had the opportunity to consider our usual lifestyles and the way we interact with the world, and a renewed focus on time spent outdoors has given us fresh appreciation for our natural environment. During lockdown, Google searches for terms such as ‘carbon footprint’ and ‘climate change’ more than quadrupled in the UK, while research from Cardiff University indicates that Brits are keen to continue with the low-carbon lifestyle choices adopted during lockdown. In fact, the researchers found that the level of public concern over climate change had increased – rather than decreased – during the pandemic.

2. Adversity can prompt agile innovation

Throughout the pandemic we’ve seen accelerated leaps forward in science and innovation, from the quick development of ‘track and trace’ apps and technology to enable us to work from home, to the vaccinations that would ordinarily take years to come to market. The speed of these innovations was driven by the urgency of the situation – the same approach needs to be taken with the climate crisis. Which brings us to…

3. Global challenges require global collaboration

Like climate change, COVID-19 is a crisis that impacts all nations – even high income countries like the US and UK have been badly affected. As Klenert et al note in their paper ‘Five Lessons from COVID-19 for Advancing Climate Change Mitigation’, some of the worst consequences of the pandemic could have been avoided if countries had worked together from the get-go. Instead, nations largely ignored the threat until its impact was felt on home soil, and then followed with bursts of isolationist action such as border shutdowns, sudden investment in domestic manufacturing and widespread rhetoric that prioritised ‘looking after our own’.

It wasn’t until many months into the crisis that any meaningful international collaboration began, with countries starting to share medical supplies and knowledge. The final phase, Klenert et al says, is full global cooperation. “These four phases of international collaboration are analogous to phases of international collaboration on climate,” they write, noting that many nations are still in the first stage of denialism when it comes to climate change. A delay in taking action will prove costly.

4. Putting the brakes on everyday life is not enough to mitigate climate change

After the best part of a year spent indoors it’s no surprise that global greenhouse gases (GHGs) dropped. In the UK, GHGs dropped by 8.9% in 2020 compared to 2019, with an overall global drop of about 8%. But as Financial Times environment correspondent Leslie Hook notes, this “just about puts us on track to where we should have been anyway, if we are to reach the Paris agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5C”.

So when we’ve already spent more than a year going without holidays, socialising and commuting, instead making do with yet another walk around the neighbourhood as our main form of entertainment, that’s a very gloomy outlook. How could we possibly be doing more? The answer, however, is not in continuing such lockdowns in the name of the environment, but rather in maintaining lockdown-sized reductions to GHGs, year-on-year. How? This brings us to our final lesson…

5. We have a tremendous opportunity here to ‘build back better’

The phrase ‘building back better’ is getting a lot of airtime right now, with governments around the world promising all sorts in terms of economic recovery in the wake of the pandemic. But again, the COVID crisis has bought us to a crossroads: we can either continue with our ‘business as usual’ approach, or take a different, greener path. The pandemic has clearly demonstrated that the usual barriers to progress – red tape, a lack of investment, political disinterest – can be quickly overcome if needs must. The same action is needed in the face of the climate crises.

Studies show that we need to cut emissions by about the size of the reductions seen in lockdown every two years, in order to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. This can be done in multiple ways, from investment in renewable energy and more efficient farming techniques, to large-scale water-saving programmes and carbon capture technology – not to mention meaningful commitments from multinational corporations, which play a major role in driving positive change.

As the dust gradually settles on the worst of the COVID-19 crisis and the world looks towards the future, green and sustainable action must become part of the ‘new normal’. We have an opportunity right now to completely reimagine global life and to create the blueprints to build it. The pandemic has taught us important lessons on handling the next great global crisis heading our way – we mustn’t waste this valuable insight.




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