OPINION: Coronavirus collides with climate action - our chance to build a better world for all

by Rachel Kyte | @rkyte365 | The Fletcher School, Tufts University
Thursday, 9 April 2020 15:49 GMT

A girl smells blooming flowers at a park after removing her protective face mask, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Beijing, China, April 1, 2020. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As COVID-19 exposes the cracks in our systems, now is the time to reset institutions and economies on a path to decarbonisation

The decision by the UN, the UK and Italy to postpone the COP26 climate summit was inevitable given the grip of coronavirus across the world. At Tufts University, having moved teaching on-line for our global student population, we are turning the campus into housing for first responders and convalescent housing for non-critical patients. We are also using the skills of our military fellows to help strengthen decision-making and communications between authorities, universities and hospitals in the fight against the virus.

But, with the climate talks postponed, we must zoom out. In the teeth of the COVID-19 crisis, individual governments are struggling to keep up with relief packages. The global economic decision-making apparatus of the Gs (7 and 20) is under the tepid leadership of the US and Saudi Arabia. Communiques exhort responses commensurate to the impacts of the global economic slowdown, but even dire warnings from the UN, IMF and the World Bank have so far failed to galvanize urgent action at scale.

The virus provokes, instinctively, cooperation at the community level, but not it seems at the international level. Name calling has silenced the UN Security Council. There are strains within Europe, with Dutch bluntness pouring salt in the wounds of southern Europe and Prime Minister Orban using the virus as cover for a putsch on European ideals.

In Brazil, President Bolsonaro has refused to act in face of the virus’ spread. And in the US, states collaborate despite the slow and inconsistent actions of the federal government – just as they have done for the past three years on climate action. China, slow to let the world understand the characteristics of the virus, now becomes aid provider for rich and poor nations alike.

Inauspicious times for the kind of collective action that the climate crisis demands? Maybe, but in this moment of extreme economic shock as a result of a predicted pandemic, we do have a chance to rouse ourselves to respond to our next known threat. This not the moment to plaster over the now all-too-visible cracks in our public health systems and social safety nets, or to bail out polluters and corporate greed. We have a chance to reset and use recovery to build economies that protect all of us and nature. We are only as strong as the weakest among us.

Decarbonising and building greater equity into our economy is possible, but we must align short, medium and long-term recovery towards the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Stimulus efforts can be job-rich, supportive of individuals and companies and, at the same time, build strength and depth in the sectors we need for a climate-safe future - public health, renewable energy, refurbished buildings, clean transportation, and land and soils restoration.


But it’s also a moment to think on even a grander scale. A year ago to the month, in an electrifying speech to the European Parliament, as Extinction Rebels controlled the bridges of London, Greta Thunberg called for “cathedral thinking” – that we would have the courage to build something that would be for today’s young and future generations.

The UK and Italy can ensure cathedral thinking – their rich histories have shown they are capable of greatness. Uniquely, they are co-hosts of the climate talks this year and next year the hosts of the G7 and G20 respectively. If a postponed COP26 is sequenced correctly with those two summits, these two powers have the opportunity to align the mechanisms for global economic governance and leadership with those of climate action.

Fusing global economic management and the push for ambitious climate action this decade with deep decarbonisation before mid-century means asking countries to make their COVID-19  recovery plans build resilience to climate impacts and shift their economies onto a path that lowers emissions.

Alternatively, countries’ new, more ambitious nationally determined climate action plans could serve as their strategies for recovery. 2020 is the year to prepare them. The G7 and the G20 must then lead the way in ensuring that the broken multilateral system swings its full weight of capital and technical expertise behind them and that low-income countries receive technical support and budget relief to move forward.

Cathedral thinking means envisaging a new Bretton Woods. We need new ways to measure success – more wellbeing budgets and an end to GDP, a blunt instrument that neither gauges human welfare nor the health of the planet. We will need a new San Francisco to re-envisage the United Nations. In its 75th year, at the very least, we know the  Security Council can no longer be entrusted with our security. Beyond better and mandatory reporting of environmental and social risk management, how do we imagine a financial sector harnessed to the needs of society?

This moment may not come again. The UK and Italy can use the process of COVID-19 relief, recovery and resilience to reset our institutions and our economic governance for the benefit of us all and nature.

Rachel Kyte is the Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.