The world needs to demonstrate the same unity and commitment to climate action and cutting greenhouse gas emissions as to containing the Coronavirus pandemic. Failure in climate change mitigation could lead to greater human life and economic losses during the coming decades. ~ Petteri Taalas, Secretary General, World Meteorological Organisation
In the wake of COVID-19 as the world comes to a halt, we see pictures of the environment cleaning itself up – from clear blue skies in Beijing, dolphins in the waters of Venice and the waters of the Ganges turning potable at Haridwar.
These positive gains to the environment are short-term, most of which have been due to the recent standstill in the economy (most particularly production), and are no panacea for the environment. Nevertheless, we got to know that the environment can be healed and revived; it is yet to reach the point of no return which many of us assumed it already had.
The apprehension now is that as the pandemic recedes and lockdowns around the world come to an end, most countries which suffered heavy set back to their economies will try to upsurge their production several folds and this will have a heavy impact on the current reviving environment. There is also a concern that many economies may even relax their environmental norms and standards to further up industrial production. In Europe, many lobbyists are already pleading for the roll back of EU environmental protections. While in US, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has already announced relaxation of environmental regulations for the time being.
The question now arises that, the way in which we are putting a global coordinated effort towards flattening the Covid-19 curve, can we do the same for climate change as well?
Climate change policy makers, and advocates of stronger environmental norms have a lot to learn from Covid-19 due to certain similar characteristics, the primary being - both advance at exponential rates. Like the person-to-person transmission of coronavirus, climate change is happening in smaller increments that can be easy to ignore until the cumulative effects can be measured: a rise in average yearly temperatures, melting glaciers, more destructive hurricanes, more intense wildfires, droughts, species extinction — the list goes on.
The effort towards flattening the climate change curve has to be backed by a strong and long-term Climate Action Plan. With many global leaders going into a climate denial mode, it is a challenging task to convince them for a stronger climate action plan, particularly at a point where a global economic recession is being predicted. The way forward is to showcase all the facts, figures and instances which clearly depicts as to how exponential growth works – just as Covid-19 cases rose from two cases on the first day, four cases on the third day, hundredth case on the seventh day and so on. These kinds of situations are very difficult to anticipate and manage. The only silver lining here is that, in case of climate change the growth has been mild at the moment since it's a global phenomenon involving several dynamic factors. But like all exponential curves, in no time it might turn from mild to severe and here delay is the enemy, just as in case of Covid-19 pandemic. Also, once the pandemic is over, the global consensus, unity and effort which we have brought about to fight the virus, must be steered towards tackling climate change.
Significant policy improvements must be brought about on four fronts globally – economy, public health laws, environmental laws and climate action. On the economic front, we must move towards a green economy with efficient utilisation of resources and sustainable consumption. Prior to the pandemic, many countries had already pledged and are working towards a greener economy. Governments agreed at Rio+20 Summit to frame the green economy as an important tool for sustainable development; one that is inclusive and can drive economic growth, employment, and poverty eradication, whilst maintaining the healthy functioning of the Earth's ecosystems. Countries like US, especially under the current regime had already started rolling back several environmental regulations. A total of 131 actions toward federal climate deregulation has been witnessed besides pulling out of Paris Agreement under Trump administration. Similar trends followed in countries like Brazil, China, Russia wherein dependence on fossil fuel increased. Following the present crisis, many economies further plan to roll back their fossil fuel usage regulations and commitments towards green economies. It is here that, stronger commitments towards carbon neutrality and green economy be made by the Governments worldwide and actions taken towards achieving it.
As far as public health laws are concerned, globally a consensus has to be brought about by countries to strengthen their public health laws and address the concerns of any future pandemics which many experts forecast arising out of the trapped pathogens in tundra ice sheets and glaciers around the world (as throughout the world ice sheets are melting rapidly and exposing many trapped pathogens). Public health laws are now being given utmost importance like never before. Many countries are discussing on legislating 'more effective' laws, but it is rarely the case where they have considered the enviro-legal and climate change related aspects to the problem. Covid-19 itself is a consequence of faults in wildlife protection laws, which spread it from wildlife (bat or pangolin) to humans through consumption. Therefore, while drafting public health laws, or even amending the existing ones, both the climate change and enviro-legal facets need to be addressed.
In addition, stronger environmental laws are required particularly to control the spread of zoonotic infections arising from illegal wildlife trade and wet markets. The provisions of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) can be made stricter and its compliance ensured. There still exist several legal loopholes in CITES, which has led to the flourishing culture of wet markets (selling illegal wildlife) in China and South-East Asia. Although world leaders are not paying much heed, but the primary cause behind the zoonotic Covid-19 has been from wet markets arising out of illegal wildlife trade. So, if we do not contain illegal wildlife trade, it is certain that we are going to face more pandemics in the near future.
Last and most importantly, there is a need for a long-term and effective Climate Action Plan. Since the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992 to Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and up until the Paris Agreement in 2015, on a global level the fight against climate change has mostly been on the positive side, especially when it comes to ratifying these treaties and making pledges for carbon emission reduction. However, with US backing out of the Paris Agreement, and many new leaders and governments across the world becoming climate action blockers like Brazil and Saudi Arabia, the fight against climate change has developed cracks. In the present context, as Covid-19 and the lockdown following it weakened many economies, re-assessing commitments and policies on climate action has begun. Many countries are de-regulating or diluting their environmental and emission norms. The Conference of Parties (COP) – 26, which was crucial for redetermining and enhancing many climate action goals, stands postponed. Contribution towards many international funds to fight climate change like the Green Climate Fund will also face a set-back as many of its top contributors (especially EU member states) are in economic distress. At present, the countries, at the least, must not renege from the aims of the Paris Agreement. As we come out of this current distress, it will be important for the countries to pledge greater commitments and enhance their nationally determined contributions (NDCs). The European Union has already announced that their commitment towards carbon neutrality by 2050 remains undeterred even under the present crisis.
It may seem difficult at the moment with an economic recession looming ahead. This also provides a good excuse to the policymakers and authorities. But if we are to learn something from Covid-19, it's that there is more peril in being unprepared than in taking steps in advance to avoid disasters. The long-term economic costs of doing nothing on climate change are far higher than if we take appropriate steps and make the needed investments now.
Abhishek Chakravarty teaches at Daksha Fellowship in Chennai. He specialises in Environmental Law. Views are personal only
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