The COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as a “stress test” for global society, with far reaching impacts across education, economic, health, agricultural, transportation and other sectors. Experts from the University of Zurich (Switzerland), a UNAI member institution serving as the SDG Hub for Goal 13: Climate Action, have studied these impacts from a sustainability perspective to determine what lessons we can learn from the pandemic and how they can be applied when dealing with climate change.

Jan R. Baiker, Nadia Castro, Veruska Muccione, Christian Huggel, Simon Allen and Fabian Drenkhan, from the Research Group on Environment and Climate in the Department of Geography, summarized the effects of the pandemic using the three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social and economic. 

The pandemic has contributed to a reduction in governmental environmental oversight, leading to an increase in illegal deforestation and poaching and data gaps due to the interruption of environmental monitoring projects.  In addition, the development, assessment and review of policies related to ongoing multilateral negotiations on climate change and the draft reporting deadlines of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were postponed. On the other hand, there has also been evidence of less vehicular traffic at the local level, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, better air quality and the recovery of species and ecosystems in different parts of the world due to the global slowdown caused by the pandemic.

In terms of the social pillar, experts noted that there was a high level of awareness about measures needed to tackle the pandemic, indicating that communications and awareness-raising campaigns can be effective in educating populations about actions that are needed to stop the pandemic, an important lesson for combating climate change as well.  At the same time, the pandemic has led to a significant growth in unemployment rates, a shift in domestic migration patterns with people moving from urban to rural areas and changing working conditions, and had a huge impact on the global economy across all sectors including travel and supply chains. The pandemic is affecting everyone, although at different levels, pace and magnitude and governments have been forced to impose some top-down and unpopular, yet accepted, measures, all of which can offer lessons in combating climate change. 

Despite the urgency of the climate crisis and the fundamental threat it poses to humanity, it has not been tackled with the same energy as the pandemic.  In general, we can portray the interactions between the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis as compound impacts. A worst-case scenario is when both impacts, climate change and the pandemic, develop at the same time. Human populations with limited resources and capacities tend to be more vulnerable to such exceptional crisis, and as such COVID-19 is exacerbating existing inequalities. The perception and experience of higher vulnerabilities in urban areas could potentially trigger migration to rural areas and lead to higher pressures and accelerated land-use change dynamics, which most probably would exacerbate the climate crisis.

There is also the risk of intensified mining or extractive industrial activities due to a reduction of environmental regulations as a result of the refunding of debt burdens that some countries had to assume. Other demands for budget cuts could result in the postponement of sustainable and climate-friendly projects and climate change actions. Many of these risks can be transformed into opportunities, especially in countries with long-term, strategic planning based on scientific evidence about climate change adaptation and mitigation.

These opportunities include a deeper consideration of nature-based solutions to increase the resilience of ecosystems, changing working conditions, employing virtual solutions to reduce the need for travel, increasing sustainability in the tourism sector, and policies in favor of more sustainable solutions such as car-free days, improved energy consuming material and food supply-chains, and agroecological production.

There are important lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 crisis that that can be applied to climate change, including the interconnectedness of social, environmental and economic systems that need to be addressed through a holistic, social-ecological approach.  The post-pandemic recovery plans, under the motto “Build Back Better”, are an opportunity to redesign these systems as a whole, aiming for transformative change as a globally coordinated effort based on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

You can learn more about the University of Zurich’s work as UNAI SDG Hub for Goal 13 here, and you can find the full list of UNAI SDG Hubs here.