2020 SAW wildfires raging through Australia, tornados abused Central America and the Gulf Coast, plagues of locusts descending on East Africa, and a new, deadly pandemic causing unprecedented suffering around the world, hitting the environmentally exploited communities the hardest.
With end-of-world motifs dominating newspaper headlines, coronavirus has been a media spectacle. The unfaltering media focus on the pandemic has consumed more mediatised space and has caused more social concern and panic than perhaps any global event since the World Wars.
One such issue that has been eclipsed has been climate change. The Covid-19 crisis arrived at a moment of historically high levels of engagement and worry about climate change, with British coverage having doubled in the four years prior to the pandemic.
Much of this media momentum can be attributed to climate advocacy groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future who have built their outreach strategies on the physical act of rallying to demand action on the climate crisis. Therefore, without the ability to hold physical protests under lockdown, has meant that environmental activism has become much less visible in mainstream media.
Whilst the pandemic has shifted media attention onto human (rather than environmental) suffering, and onto the needs of the present, rather than future, generations, it is clear that both crises are intrinsically interconnected. Research commissioned by the European Climate Foundation reported that that “Covid-19 can feel like a sped up analogy for climate change” because “both are major health challenges, presenting a global threat to wellbeing in which the vulnerable are hit first and hardest, and personal and local action play a crucial role”.
Interestingly, whilst there has been a drop in news coverage of the climate crisis, concern amongst the British public has not faltered. A poll conducted by Ipsos MORI last April revealed that two thirds of Britons believe climate change is as serious as coronavirus and majority want the climate prioritised in economic recovery following the pandemic.
Inger Andersen, Executive director of the United Nation’s Environment Programme (UNEP) has also stressed to the UN Environment Assembly last month how the “COVID-19 pandemic is inextricably linked to three planetary crises of our own making: the climate crisis, the nature and biodiversity crisis, and the pollution and waste crisis.”
In light of the pandemic, Anderson has urged more nations to raise their ambitions and has reiterated that the most important step is a second phase of green spending that will strive to go much further than the first. Compared with last year, she said: “We are in a better place.
“We have seen what is possible – though for the wrong reason – and we are now seeing net-zero pledges. If – and it is an if – the next stimulus is aligned with decarbonisation, we will be in a good position.”
According to the UNEP’s annual emissions gap report, a green economic recovery from the pandemic could make a substantial difference to greenhouse gas emission and put the world back on track for the Paris agreement target of less than 2C of warming. 2020 saw global climate emission drop by 5 per cent as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, the largest annual reduction on record.
Despite the fact the pandemic has caused the steepest slowdown of human activity since the Second World War, this is not enough to have anything other than a “negligible” impact on the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere.
The Covid-19 induced reduction is merely in line with the scale of cuts that will be needed every ear until 2030 to reach the Paris goals. According to UNEP’s report, the change was temporary and involved too much suffering to be replicable after lockdown restrictions are eased. This report illustrates the scope and scale of the climate crisis, as a mere 5 percent is all we achieved from shutting the entire world down for the best part of a year.
This raises the important question of whether the coronavirus crisis will have prompted any long-terms shifts in human behaviour. Whilst Ipsos MORI’s poll concluded that Britons are still concerned with the environmental issues facing the world and the country, this will make little difference if people resume flying and driving as they did before the pandemic. However, if we continue with more remote work and less commuting, it might lead to a larger, more sustainable reduction in emissions.
Megan d’Ardenne is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental and sustainable news. She has contributed to BBC Radio Surrey, The Indiependent, Closer, and has been a regular contributor to Vegan Food and Living. You can follow her on instagram: @lovedbymegan
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