There are two sharply divergent views about the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic for global efforts to tackle climate change. Some policy experts and activists believe we must deprioritize climate action, while others take the view that this moment presents a unique – and perhaps final – window of opportunity to set the world on a low-carbon development pathway. We believe there is an element of truth to both perspectives. There will be several phases to this unfolding crisis, and for climate action, it is all about timing.
Containing the health crisis will remain the primary focus for the foreseeable future, and this is the immediate priority of The Rockefeller Foundation. As our Testing Action Plan makes clear, “testing is our way out of this crisis”. The Plan lays out a series of precise steps necessary to enact robust testing, tracing, and coordination to enable the safe reopening of our economy. The Foundation’s Testing Solutions Group of cities, states, and tribal communities, meanwhile, is committed to scaling up access to testing for Covid-19 and finding solutions to common challenges.
However, the disease has already opened up a second front in this war: the real economy. Entire countries are in lockdown; countless small businesses have been shuttered; unemployment is skyrocketing, and food insecurity is rising across the globe. A second near-term priority is to support relief efforts to ensure that essential human needs are met and hard-won development gains are not reversed. As our President, Dr. Rajiv J. Shah, has expressed, we stand “ready to work in partnership with others to identify, invest, and scale-up solutions in the communities we serve here at home and around the world.”
However, eventually, containment and relief will give way to a period of recovery, perhaps as early as the first half of 2021. The key priority at this time will be to avoid a deep and prolonged economic downturn, but the recovery phase will also present a unique opportunity to address the more slow-moving climate emergency.
G20 governments have already pledged about $5 trillion to stimulate their economies in the wake of the shutdown. If we can put clean energy at the heart of stimulus plans next year can become a major turning point. As Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund has pointed out, there is no trade-off between addressing climate change and the current crisis, because: “fiscal stimulus….can help us address both crises at the same time”.
Given the unprecedented scale and depth of the ongoing crisis, we believe the recovery phase will present a unique opportunity to advance a green and equitable economic recovery, targeting inequality and exclusion in a fundamental manner. This recovery phase, likely to gather pace throughout 2021, will present a moment to reimagine how we power the economy. Massive investments in renewable energies, transmission lines, battery storage, and solar PV micro-grids can reduce emissions while creating jobs and wealth-building opportunities for communities that are currently excluded and marginalized. To make this happen we must identify bold, original, pragmatic, and innovative ideas, and they must be rigorously assessed and on the table when the windows of opportunity open.
Finally, following the recovery phase, there will be a time for reflection. This will be a moment to evaluate if the global architecture that facilitates international cooperation and development is fit for purpose in an interconnected 21st century. In the wake of past crises such as World War II, new organizations were established to promote cooperation and security, including the United Nations and its World Health Organization. The Bretton Woods institutions were established to promote international economic development. Following the financial crisis of 2008/2009, the G20 was established.
We must use this moment to reimagine the international architecture necessary to address systemic risks such as climate change because these risks are now a feature of a globalized world.
Increased population density, the growth of megacities, and the destruction of natural ecosystems make the spread of novel pathogens more likely. However, these factors also underpin climate change, which will pose its own set of catastrophic disruptions in the decades ahead.
The flourishing of the human family—perhaps even its survival—will be determined by how successfully we can meet the human need today, but also what we learn for the future.