3 COVID lessons we can apply to the climate crisis

3 COVID lessons we can apply to the climate crisis

When the causes of the crises facing us today are intertwined, the solutions have to be as well…

When the dust settles on 2020 and we have time to look back, one thing I’m keen to understand is how time has sped up exponentially even though I’m sat at home 24-7. My days – emptied of the normal to and fro of pre-COVID life – have been jam-packed from start to finish, and I have no idea how I used to squeeze in commuting, popping to the shops and eating out with friends into my diary.

And so it is only now – almost six months after the fact – that I find myself watching the recording of the Climate Action’s first webinar in their Digital Roadmap to COP26 series on COVID-19 and Climate Change. I wondered what messages from the early days of the pandemic would still carry weight as we are facing regional lockdowns that are quickly spreading national.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Hosted by Nik Gowing, Founder and Co-Director of Thinking the Unthinkable, the webinar brought together doctors, scientists and leaders from the UN to talk about the lessons they were taking from the COVID crisis that we should apply to the climate crisis.

Here are 3 lessons we can apply to the climate crisis:

Immediate behaviour change must be followed by longer-term systemic change

Dr. David Navarro from the World Health Organisation believes that we will need long-term behaviour change as we learn to live with COVID, drawing parallels with cholera – when we changed the way we dealt with our waste – and HIV/AIDS – when we changed the way we had sex and the precautions we put in place. And as we consciously shift our behaviour now, we’re laying patterns we can follow when it comes to climate change.

‘It’s in the shifting and coming to terms with the impact of COVID that there is an awful lot of opportunity. I believe we will learn – all of us – how we can collectively change the way we behave so as to influence other existential threats that face the human race.’

David said what’s needed for both COVID and the climate crisis is consistency in our response, clear messaging, a collective change across society and cooperation between nations. He also made it clear that we need governments to listen to scientists and experts and their input needs to be transparently communicated to the wider population.

Jakob Cotton, Unsplash

Businesses have had to be agile and imaginative – changing how they interact with employees, customers, suppliers, stakeholders – and that will be required as day-to-day operations change with climate change.

‘I do like it when local authority leaders actually open up and engage with people – whether they’re in business or in civil society or in professions or in universities and schools – and have lots of questions and answers. There’s a lot of sense-making going on everywhere, and the people who can make that happen are local leaders. It’s through two-way or multi-way exchange that we can make sense of this new reality. Without that sense-making and the necessary mindset shifts that go with it, it’s very hard to move forward.’

David recognised that developing countries are facing a steeper uphill climb as the investment in public health, business resilience and climate mitigations is low to nonexistent. He finds hope in the sense of community and ‘ways of working together that make it easier to understand where threats are coming from and to be able to respond collectively…It’s that collective capacity that allows you to work together as one that is going to be key to making a difference – whether that’s on COVID, nature or climate.’

‘Adaptation and resilience is a central part of climate action agenda and must be taken more seriously. I believe the arrival of COVID-19 gives an extra dimension to this need for resilience…I don’t think COVID will distract from the issue of resilience; I actually think it will give a much greater significance and urgency for the need for greater attention to resilience, to adaptation, to climate action discussions.’

We can control the impact humans have on the planet

Josef Aschbacher, the Director of Earth Observation Programmes at the European Space Agency, shared the stunning images their satellites captured of the dramatic fall in air pollution as industry shut down around the world.

Referring to it as ‘taking the pulse of our planet’, Josef’s images compared March/April 2019 to the same time period in 2020. We could see a measurable reduction in NO2 above Europe – the greenhouse gas associated most closely with industry – between a 48 and 54 percent drop.

‘During the lockdown, when traffic and industry has been drastically reduced, pollution goes down immediately…We expected images of this kind, but once you see this visually in front of you – how big the changes are, how drastic they are – it becomes evident how much an impact humans have on this planet.’

Nitrogen dioxide concentrations over France, European Space Agency

We all saw how these levels rebounded immediately as countries lifted the lockdown restrictions and industry, commuting and ‘normal life’ got started again. Josef warned that it would happen.

‘We want to get out of lockdown, but we have a unique opportunity with all the stimulus money and stimulus packages that we also look at the environment by investing in the economy.’

Helena Molin Valdes, the Director of the UN’s Climate and Clean Air Coalition, echoed Josef’s data on the reduction of air pollution as lockdowns kept most people at home.

She said that the drop in air pollution levels demonstrate that we can impact the world around us if we take collective, global action. This should be a wake-up call, but obviously with COVID the negative impacts of the lockdowns are huge. We need behaviour change that is intentionally designed so we can bring everyone together to a better future.

She shared a quote from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres that summed it up:

’The only answer is brave, visionary and collaborative leadership [to address the pandemic]…[leadership is also] needed to address the looming existential threat of climate disruption. Delayed climate action will cost us vastly more each year in terms of lost lives and livelihoods, crippled businesses and damaged economies.’

A green recovery is absolutely essential to tackle both COVID and the climate crises

Martin Adams, Head of Health & Sustainable Resource Use from the European Environment Agency, shared how he’s seen the narrative develop around COVID and the climate crisis. The headlines started showing how pollution levels dropped, then they started linking environmental factors to COVID vulnerability, leading to a broader reflection on our (re)discovered appreciation of clear skies, lower levels of noise, access to nature.

‘The crisis is changing our societies and economies in ways we’ve not seen in recent years and it’s linked to the changing pressures on the environment and climate.’

Martin agreed that we need long-term transitions to how we live, work and play in the world, but not at the economic or health costs we’ve seen during the COVID pandemic. ‘The crisis is triggering reflections about the way we produce and consume goods and services globally and in our own societies.’

He shared four outcomes from the EEA’s most recent State and Outlook of the Environment report:

  • We need to better implement what has been promised
  • We need to enable integrated solutions to systemic issues
  • We need to avoid the risk of ‘lock-ins’ – how do we avoid recovery measures that aren’t compatible with long-term climate and environment objectives? ‘We want to avoid stranded assets, but also stranded communities and stranded regions when we come to invest as part of these recovery measures.’
  • We need decisions and actions from governments of course, but also from societies and businesses as well

Pushpam Kumar, the Chief Environmental Economist from the UN Environment Programme, shared initial statistics of how the pandemic had exposed social and economic inequalities – at the end of April, it was estimated to put 49 million people into extreme poverty.

For him, it was clear what the cause of the crisis was. ‘The pandemic has come about due to the dysfunctional relationship between humans and nature, partly through habitat fragmentation, domestication of wildlife and climate change…We must ensure that nature is part of the DNA of the solution to the health crisis.’

Nathan Ziemanski, Unsplash

Pushpam had three solutions he hoped governments around the world would implement:

  • Investing in a green economy
  • Investing in nature restoration and nature-based solutions
  • Investing in renewable energy and the circular economy

Martin ended by sharing a call to action from the Green Recovery Alliance. A group of business and financial leaders, political decision-makers and other stakeholders signed an open letter to call for a recovery that worked for both people and the planet.

‘COVID-19 will not make climate change and nature degradation go away. We will not win the fight against COVID-19 without a solid economic response. Let’s not oppose those two battles, but let’s fight and win them at the same time. By doing so, we will only be stronger together.’


These are lessons that have only become more urgent as we reach the final months of 2020. And we would do well as businesses, community leaders and individuals to find ways to put them into practice.