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Sustainability and the climate after corona

26 Mar 2020 - 13:57

It cannot be denied that global sustainability has profited from Corona. Many have seen the pictures that NASA published some months ago of improved air quality in China. Reduced car transport and aviation and the declined industrial production will for sure cause a reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. However, these are all short-term effects.

Longer term effects on global sustainability of the corona crisis rather have to be sought in a fundamental and lasting mentality shift in the minds of people because of the crisis. The main change is likely to be the increased perception of vulnerability and dependence on nature by people in industrialised countries.

In Northwestern Europe, this dependence has never been felt before by current generations. The 1953 floods in the Netherlands, causing the death of almost two thousand people, are largely seen as a historical fact of which a future occurrence is taken care of by the development of superior technological waterworks thereafter.

In other industrialised regions, natural disasters in recent decades were either confined to a short moment in time (earthquakes) or could be warned for so that temporary preventive measures could be taken (hurricanes). The existence of invisible dangers that could threaten whole populations, such as a pest, was until now largely considered to be something of the Middle Ages.

The possibility for the corona crisis to bring a mentality shift for global sustainability will largely depend on how fast a vaccine will be found

After corona, the dangers of a global pandemic will certainly not be underestimated anymore by any individual or country. The further impacts of this mentality shift for global sustainability will largely depend on how fast a vaccine to prevent corona, and a medicine to cure this virus infection, will be found.

In a black scenario, without vaccine nor medicine in the coming years, the pandemic will slowly fade out because global resistances build up. The danger of new infections from elsewhere will then remain imminent and be felt by everybody worldwide. In this case it is likely that the current compartmentalisation of the world, in which each country has closed its borders to keep out the virus, will remain in the future.

The reinstalled border controls will stay and countries will continue to quarrel for a long time about having taken sufficient measures against corona or not, like the United States is now doing with China. In this scenario right populist politicians in many countries will also find a new motive to warn against the perceived dangers of immigration.

It is also likely in this event that the current focus of the corona crisis in Europe will be followed by a massive outbreak of the disease in refugee camps at the European borders, in Africa, India, and South- and Middle America.

Without a vaccine, and millions of people dying, any discussions about climate change mitigation and sustainability measures would appear futile for many years to come

In light of the millions of people dying and the resulting massive reductions in standards of living worldwide, any discussions about future long-term climate change mitigation and sustainability measures would subsequently appear futile for many years to come.

As an even more cynical consequence in this case, it might turn out that the massive reduction in global population caused by the virus in the end has reduced many of the current pressures on the climate and the environment. The survivors then might return to business-as-usual very quickly and a new cycle of increasing pollution and climate change pressures could start.

Such a Doomsday scenario might not have to come true, however. Looking at the possible consequences of corona in a positive way, the increased sense of vulnerability and dependence on the global ecosystem’s functioning could also invoke a new spirit of worldwide solidarity and interdependence.

If the corona crisis results in closer global cooperation, this could be used to address other global ecosystem vulnerabilities such as climate change

A vaccine and medicine against corona in this scenario would be found quickly and rolled out over the world rapidly in order to prevent the crisis from spreading to developing countries. The resulting closer global cooperation to solve the pandemic then would help to rebuild trust between countries worldwide, which in turn could be used to address other global ecosystem vulnerabilities such as climate change.

The global economic crisis caused by the pandemic in this scenario would not be seen as a threat to humankind, but rather be used as an opportunity to finally realise the much-needed transformation of the global economic system towards a sustainable ‘doughnut’ or ‘circular’ economy.

The feeling of vulnerability in this scenario in the end would give way to a sense of interdependency with the global ecosystems on which our global health and welfare fundamentally depend.

Which of these outlined options for sustainability after corona will become reality remains to be seen in the coming months and years. Let’s hope for the latter. Perhaps a large crisis like this is needed to overcome the hurdles to achieve fundamental positive changes for global sustainability that up to now appeared unsurmountable.

Auteurs

Stephan Slingerland
Senior Visiting Fellow bij het Clingendael Instituut