Covid-19 pandemic: a source of hope for the environment?

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Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

The question of whether or not the Covid-19 pandemic constitutes a blessing or a curse for climate change is highly complex. Although this crisis gave us a glimpse of the miracles that can potentially be achieved through ambitious global cooperation, allowing hope to prevail, the countless damages and sacrifices that it demanded are likely to curb any determined political willingness to further restrain the economy in any way.

An unexpected source of hope

The global response to Covid-19 represents a considerable source of hope concerning humanity’s ability to effectively combat climate change because it highlighted its ability to react and adapt in the face of an upcoming disaster.

In the space of only a few months, the sanitary emergency generated by the spreading of the Coronavirus across the five continents completely disrupted our daily lives and probably posed the most dangerous threat to human life since the demise of the Cold War. But, in the face of this menace and even with the initial scarceness of information, humanity reacted quickly and firmly. Almost unprecedented measures which would have been unthinkable one year ago, including national lockdowns and curfews, were implemented to halt the virus’ propagation. In spite of the huge freedom restriction that the latter solutions imposed, they were largely respected by the population, which allowed a significant slowdown of the pandemic’s progression. According to a mathematical model created by researchers from Imperial College London, the dispositions taken by France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Belgium, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United-Kingdom to control the epidemic between February and May 2020 have averted the death of 3.1 million additional individuals in those countries (Flaxman et al, 2020). Governments’ non-pharmaceutical interventions have thus allowed to substantially reduce transmission in the short-term.

The mobilization of the global scientific community also produced phenomenal prowess, making it possible to envision a world where human societies’ lifestyles are not dictated by the variations of the Covid-19 infection rate. Over the course of a year, multiple vaccines were conceived and approved, representing a massive scientific breakthrough. This unprecedented reactivity is largely due to the international collaboration between different actors from the private sector, which combined their forces in order to achieve satisfying results in a short timeframe. The BNT2b2, which is one of the first vaccines to have  been proposed on the market, epitomises the success of this type of cooperation. This vaccine is actually the fruit of a partnership between Pfizer and BioNTech, two major pharmaceutical companies respectively from the United-States and Germany. The combination of these two corporations’ expertise and resources has significantly quickened the research process, and allowed the vaccination campaign to start early in the United-States and in Europe (Pfizer, 2020). The latter process is now beginning to come to fruition in various countries. In the UK for example, the restrictions keep being loosened and all legal limits on social contact should be abolished by June 21st as around 3 in 4 adults have received one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine (Office for National Statistics, 2021; UK government, 2021).

This pandemic is thus proof that if global leaders are fully committed to overcoming a crisis and that they grant the scientific community sufficient resources, even humanity’s most daunting challenges can be surmounted.

A likely prioritization of economic recovery over environmental concerns

Nevertheless, the combat against the pandemic has left colossal scars on the world’s economy, meaning that economic recovery will probably be the absolute priority in the post-Covid-19 era.

The numerous measures implemented by governments as part of the effort to limit the virus’ spread have hugely impacted national economies. The United-States were no exception to this effect. The country’s economy was devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic as the American economy shrank by 3.5% in 2020, making it its worst figure since World War II (Rushe, 2021). Even at the global level, the epidemic’s impact was major as the levels of international commercial exchanges plunged because of the policies of lockdown adopted by a myriad of countries. In fact, the value of international trade is set to fall by 8% in 2020, and global GDP is expected to contract by 5% this same year, which are two of the worst economic results ever recorded for these measures (UNCTAD, 2021).

This impressive economic downturn is largely due to the fact that many economic activities were seriously hindered by the sanitary crisis, constraining governments to go into substantial debt in order to avoid an economic disaster. Furthermore, national authorities’ willingness to vaccinate their population has also necessitated massive investments, whose substantial cost represents a huge burden on national accounts. President Biden’s historic $10 billion investment plan to generalize access to Covid-19 vaccines perfectly illustrates the magnitude of the latter expenses (White House, 2021).

These profound economic damages will unavoidably prompt national governments to make all the efforts necessary to allow a strong economic recovery in the aftermath of the crisis. This prioritization will probably mean that no major environmental norm constraining businesses will be introduced. Furthermore, there will also probably be a willingness to limit public expenditures, which will undoubtedly prevent the constitution of ambitious national and international plans leading to an actual ecological transition. The American President’s pledge to spend $5.7 billion per year to support developing nations’ environmental efforts and propel clean energy has already disappointed environmental activists, who advocated for funds amounting to at least $8 billion annually (Dlouhi and Natter, 2021).

Determining whether or not the current pandemic constitutes a source of hope for the environment is thus highly difficult to predict. It is clear that humanity’s capacity to tackle the crisis might prompt some to be optimistic about our ability to meet the challenge of climate change. However, the crucial need to favour conditions conducive to economic recovery and to limit public expenses will undoubtedly be prioritized over the latter combat and thus represent a substantial impediment to the implementation of ambitious environmental schemes in the short and middle term.

References:

-Pfizer (2020). “Pfizer and BioNTech to co-develop potential Covid-19 vaccine” (Online). Available at: https://investors.pfizer.com/investor-news/press-release-details/2020/Pfizer-and-BioNTech-to-Co-Develop-Potential-COVID-19-Vaccine/default.aspx (Accessed: 15 May 2021).

-Flaxman et al (2020). “Estimating the effects of non-pharmaceutical interventions on Covid-19 in Europe”, Nature, vol. 584, pp. 257-261.

-Office for National Statistics (2021). “Coronavirus (Covid-19) latest insights” (Online). Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/conditionsanddiseases/articles/coronaviruscovid19/latestinsights (Accessed: 16 May 2021).

-UK Government (2021). “Prime Minister sets out roadmap to cautiously ease lockdown restrictions” (Online). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/prime-minister-sets-out-roadmap-to-cautiously-ease-lockdown-restrictions (Accessed: 16 May 2021).

-Rushe, D. (2021). “US economy shrank by 3.5% in 2020, the worst year since second world war”, The Guardian (Online). Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/jan/28/us-economy-shrank-2020-worst-year-since-second-world-war (Accessed: 16 May 2021).

-UNCTAD (2021). “Key Statistics and Trends in International Trade” (Online). Available at: https://unctad.org/system/files/official-document/ditctab2020d4_en.pdf (Accessed: 16 May 2021).

-White House (2021). “FACT SHEET: Biden Administration Announces Historic $10 billion Investment to Expand Access to COVID-19 Vaccines and Build Vaccine Confidence in Hardest-Hit and Highest-Risk Communities” (Online). Available at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/03/25/fact-sheet-biden-administration-announces-historic-10-billion-investment-to-expand-access-to-covid-19-vaccines-and-build-vaccine-confidence-in-hardest-hit-and-highest-risk-communities/ (Accessed: 16 May 2021).

-Dlouhy, J. and Natter, A. (2021). “Biden Disappoints Activists With $5.75 Billion Climate Pledge for Poor Countries”, Bloomberg Green (Online). Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-04-22/biden-s-5-7-billion-climate-vow-to-developing-world-draws-ire (Accessed: 16 May 2021).

By Yann Guillaume

Yann Guillaume is a first-year Bsc Politics and International Relations at UCL. He is passionate about current affairs, diplomacy and international politics, and is particularly interested in the American leadership in the post-Trump era.

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