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COVID-19 and Climate Change — SDGs 13 and 15

Written by Brady Press

Rightfully so, the world’s attention is currently focused on the most immediate global threat, the COVID-19 pandemic. However, parallel conversations regarding the existing threat of climate change are occurring, as experts demand governments, companies, organizations and the public to remember the importance of addressing the vast environmental dangers still facing our planet.

In this article, we capture varying viewpoints of how the environment is being affected in the COVID-19 era, and what it means for the future of climate change.

The Connection Between Deforestation, Global Warming and COVID-19

Scientists are revealing that deforestation and habitat and biodiversity degradation — all elements affecting SDGs 13 and 15 — are leading to closer proximity between humans and animals, resulting in higher risks of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19. According to a Sustainable Brands article, “60% of novel infectious diseases originate in animals and can be highly contagious and dangerous” and there is a “clear link between deforestation and novel disease emergence.”

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 3 out of every 4 new or emerging diseases come from animals, further exposing the dangers of deforestation, which is a main driver of climate change. Daniel Mira-Salama, senior environmental specialist in the World Bank’s Beijing office, notes that:

“Due to anthropogenic activities, we are substantially increasing our exposure to pathogens we have never been exposed to, and thus we’re not prepared to respond to. We’re doing this in two main ways: bringing wildlife too close to us [such as markets], or us getting too close to wildlife [by way of overdevelopment].”

There are also concerns that arctic ice melting from global warming will cause additional diseases to come forth.

In an New York Times op-ed, the Direct of Policy at the Roosevelt Institute doubled down on these concerns, stating that:

“Pandemics like the coronavirus may occur more often when climate change is unabated. Warming and changing weather patterns shift the vectors and spread of disease. Heavily polluting industries also contribute to disease transmission. Studies have linked factory farming — one of the largest sources of methane emissions — to faster-mutating, more virulent pathogens.”

Slowing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Due to reductions in travel and transport ordered by COVID-19 regulations, greenhouse gas emissions and pollution have decreased. This is a positive for the environment and SDG 13 in the immediate term, and has gained public attention — such as cities seeing better air quality. However, experts are cautioning people against counting short-term reductions as environmental wins.

James Temple — Senior Editor of Energy at MIT Technology Review — explains that:

“In the short term, global emissions are falling, as they did during steep economic declines in the past. But carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for centuries, meaning the total concentration will continue to rise even if we’re producing less of it. And emissions will bounce back as soon as economies do. They’re already nearly within normal ranges in China again.

So the threat of rapidly accelerating climate change will remain. And we’ll be living in a much poorer world, with fewer job opportunities, less money to invest in cleaner systems, and deeper fears about our health, our financial futures, and other lurking dangers.”

According to Scripps Oceanography geochemist Ralph Keeling, although greenhouse gas emissions in China have reduced by 25% since the start of the pandemic, emissions would need to drop 10% globally and remain consistent for one year to show positive and sustainable environmental impact.

The Head of the UN Environment Program (UNEP) Inger Andersen agrees, stating that “visible, positive impacts — whether through improved air quality or reduced greenhouse gas emissions — are but temporary.” She also brings light to the harmful environmental realities of COVID-19, such as increases in the amounts of medical and hazardous waste and increased plastic use.

COVID-19 Response as an Example for Climate Response

Although taking immediate attention away from SDG 13, response to COVID-19 has provided a baseline for the type of action the world is capable of to address a global issue. Sustainability advocates and experts are acknowledging that systemic changes forced by the pandemic are presenting opportunities to prioritize sustainability and make lasting changes to existing business models that will help the environment, as discussed by Mary Linnell-Simmons, Director of Marketing at Fairtrade America in a Sustainable Brands article.

Other opportunities take form in “lessons learned” from COVID-19 thus far, which can be applied to the climate crisis— such as the need for government transparency about health risks and scientific facts as well as the dangers of misinformation.

Arthur Wyns — climate change researcher at the World Health Organization, further explains parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change in a World Economic Forum article. He lists three lessons the organization is drawing from the current situation and how it relates to climate change:

“1) Well-resourced, equitable health systems with a strong and supported health workforce are essential to protect us from health security threats, including climate change.

2) The ongoing pandemic illustrates how inequality is a major barrier in ensuring the health and well-being of people, and how social and economic inequality materializes in unequal access to healthcare systems.

3) The global health crisis we find ourselves in has forced us to dramatically change our behaviour in order to protect ourselves and those around us, to a degree most of us have never experienced before, which could lead to a public drive for collective action and effective risk management.”

Opportunities for the Future

The reduction in greenhouse gases is unlikely to stick as economies reopen and people start returning to work. However, the adaptability shown during the current pandemic has presented the possibility of living more sustainable lives in the future. COVID-19 could also result in lasting behavior change measures from companies, such as adjusting to work from home models and traveling less, which could help progress action toward climate change.

Behavior change curbing environmental harm cannot just come from companies, though. Governments need to step up and enact policies that push sustainability forward. Additionally, putting the environment, and progress towards SDGs 13 and 15 on the back burner is “irrational” and “irresponsible,” according to David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, and puts the health and human rights of people at risk — thus affecting much of the Global Agenda.

COVID-19 is the premier global issue of today, but climate change is the global issue of the decade, and, according to experts, it needs aggressive attention in government policies not after COVID-19, but alongside it.

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Brady Press is an Associate Director at Changing Our World, where she specializes in building strategic corporate citizenship programs. She is a consultant to SDGCounting and StartingUpGood, and is currently researching how COVID-19 is affecting the Sustainable Development Goals.



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Keeping track of progress on trying to count and measure the success of the Sustainable Development Goals.