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Sustainably Yours: Why COVID-19 gives me hope for climate change

Sustainably Yours: Why COVID-19 gives me hope for climate change

We’re living through strange and uncertain times having gone from the climate crisis of 2019 directly into the health crisis of 2020. No need to go to the cinema anymore to watch the latest Hollywood disaster movie, these days it seems as if we’re all living through one and you just need to turn on BBC or CNN. Hurricanes, volcanoes, floods, droughts, fires, now a virus, dare I ask what’s next?

By Palmer Owyoung

Sunday 29 March 2020, 11:00AM

Banks of grounded Cathay Pacific planes sit banked up. Far fewer flights is just one environmental impact COVID-19 has had on the planet. Photo: AFP

Banks of grounded Cathay Pacific planes sit banked up. Far fewer flights is just one environmental impact COVID-19 has had on the planet. Photo: AFP

COVID-19 and Climate Change

Although the two may not seem to be connected, climate change and COVID-19 are two parts of the same problem. It is an environmental crisis that created this health crisis.

Despite what conspiracy theories might have you believe, there is no credible evidence to suggest that this virus was made in a lab or is a bioweapon. A recently-published study in the journal Nature debunks this claim by comparing the gene sequence of COVID-19 to previously studied coronaviruses (see here), and found that this pathogen evolved and was not engineered.

 The most likely explanation for its evolution is that the destruction of natural habitats from development, mining, farming, burning and exotic animal encounters from hunting and the global wild life trade created an ideal environment for the zoonotic transfer of a novel coronavirus to humans.

We’ve seen this same scenario play out before with SARS, Ebola, MERS and even AIDS. Furthermore, our global interconnectedness from travel and trade has made it easier for them to spread more quickly than ever before.

An R-nought of 2 means that the rate of infection of this virus is exponential, and with a mortality rate of 1% to 3%, it can kill millions. So, while we should take it seriously, climate change is at least as significant a threat, even though it’s on a longer time frame.

While everyone is feeling the pressure from the global shutdown, there are reasons to be optimistic and lessons to be learned about how to deal with climate change from how we’re managing COVID-19.

Global Action

It is the first time we’ve seen this level of global cooperation since World War II. Open communication between governments on this level is unprecedented, and it is precisely this type of commitment, personal sacrifice, and systemic mobilisation that it will take to fight climate change.

In China alone, we’ve seen a drop of 25% in emissions almost overnight, which, according to Marshall Burke, an assistant professor at Stanford, could prevent as many 50,000 to 75,000 premature deaths.

Schools, bars, restaurants and businesses have closed, planes have stopped flying, and individuals have stopped driving. Who would have thought this was possible even just a few months ago?

While this isn’t a long-term solution for reducing CO2 emissions, we can learn from this experience for the future. For example, companies could allow people to work from home more often or make greater use of video conferencing rather than flying. At the same time, governments could implement shorter work weeks and encourage businesses to offer flexible work hours to stagger the flow of traffic.

CMI - Thailand


COVID-19 has demonstrated the vulnerability of our economic system, which highlights the need for a universal basic income (UBI) more than ever. In a world where 1% of the wealthiest own 50% of the world’s wealth, it is clear that our current model doesn’t work for most people. A UBI would help redistribute wealth by taxing companies like Amazon and Google, which use artificial intelligence and robots but pay little in taxes. A UBI could give people enough to pay rent and bills and make it through financially-stressful times.

This crisis has also exposed the vulnerability of our global supply chain. For example, a hospital in Brescia, a small town in Northern Italy, ran out of replacement valves for its ventilators. The manufacturer was overwhelmed with demand and unable to supply the part. However, a nearby 3D printing company was able to backward-engineer the valve and print 100 units within 24 hours. This type of ingenuity demonstrates our ability to localize supply chains using modern technology, thus alleviating the need to transport certain goods from other countries, which will lower their carbon footprint.

Living Life

If there is a silver lining here, it is that COVID-19 has put life into perspective and will help us to re-examine our values as a society. We should not sacrifice good health, good relationships, clean air, clean water or healthy food for the sake of economic development or convenience.

What we are now experiencing is a mandated low-carbon lifestyle, which restricts our ability to fly, drive, and buy things. If we don’t want this to become our permanent future, we need to take significant strides in getting governments, corporations, and individuals to lower their carbon footprints.

Staying Healthy

The coronavirus has also highlighted the need to stay healthy and how much we sometimes take good health for granted. Eat a plant-based diet, avoid alcohol, quit smoking or vaping, exercise, meditate, get enough sleep, appreciate the ones you love and avoid the ones you don’t, and you might find that you are not only healthier, but happier as well.

While climate change lacks the immediacy of COVID-19, it is every bit as significant a threat. An environmental crisis caused this health crisis, and if the world continues along the same path, there will be future pandemics.

Governments, businesses and individuals need to address climate change with the same amount of fervour with which they are fighting COVID-19. Because they are two parts of the same problem, to solve one in the long run, we will need to address the other. For that, we need to rethink how we utilize our resources, stop over-consuming, and start living in balance with nature.

Palmer Owyoung is an environmental activist working with the Kamala Green Club and the Global Sustainability Hub.

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