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OPINION: COVID-19 and climate change – Lessons from the East

The rest of the world can learn from East Asian countries’ effective responses to the COVID-19 pandemic – argues Simant Verma  of ICLEI South Asia. It is also a moment to embrace COVID-19 recovery that is environmentally sustainable.

COVID-19 is bringing the world to its knees to an unprecedented extent. The response from governments, policy-makers, businesses and common people in these four months has been nothing short of extraordinary.

After months of lockdown, countries are now opening up, incorporating learnings from one another at speed, adapting to physical distancing norms for an indefinite period, with political leaders having to make tough decisions with every passing day.

Amidst all this, we must not forget that the world is facing a similar threat in the form of climate change – also in many ways invisible.. All actors including governments, businesses and civil society should continue working towards battling this threat with similar resolve and speed, especially now that economies around the world are opening up. To move to a net zero emissions society by 2050, rapid action and unique policy tools coupled with institutional memory can show us the way – East Asia’s fight with COVID 19 has lessons.

East Asia has done a tremendous job of containing the spread of the virus. We can all learn from their resolve in this fight and emulate their actions, particularly their rapid response in our collective fight against climate change.

China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have all learned from each other, used policy tools and acted immediately to contain the disease spread.

South Korea led the way with its unique policy tool of ensuring mass testing that came into effect early on in the crisis stage. Likewise, policy tools can be effectively used to mitigate the climate crisis.

A small number of firms are responsible for a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions. With similar bold steps, governments across the world can compel these corporations to reduce their carbon footprint significantly in the interest of world population. The rich and developed nations, some of which are responsible for the highest levels of emissions should lead the way in this regard. People across the world have started demanding reduced emissions, with the recent school strikes being a well-coordinated global effort in this regard. In taking such bold measures, policy-makers would be following the stream of public opinion.

Taiwan has shown the world what rapid response can potentially achieve. The country acted 21 days before the first case was detected, by implementing stricter inspection of travellers from Wuhan, China.[1] The science on climate change has been piling up for the past few decades, demonstrating that reduced emissions – tapering to net zero emissions by 2050 – are needed to ensure that our world is habitable for everyone. It is time to learn from the quick response of Taiwan during this COVID 19 pandemic to listen to the science and act on it. Climate change adaptation measures should kick in equally soon to ensure the vulnerable population is resilient to oncoming shocks and stresses.

East Asia has particularly learnt its lessons from the 2003 SARS outbreak and its frequent battles with dengue fever. Institutional memory helped people and organisations to gain precious time, which they used effectively by deploying stringent measures to control the disease spread. In the global South, countries that are the most vulnerable to climate change and natural hazards have the potential to help their populations adapt to the oncoming climate crisis. Planning for the future by learning from experience, listening to climate-vulnerable populations and local governments in tandem with knowledge from scientists can go a long way in ensuring a safe environment for citizens.

The little environmental relief that we have seen in the past few months; plunging greenhouse gas emissions and better air quality, has come at an unacceptable social and economic cost. Going forward, into a new world era, scientists, civil society and governments should proactively work together to ensure that all development happens within the bounds of nature. Protecting and restoring the natural environment, keeping fossil fuels in the ground and providing essential development for societies through the use of renewable energy and recycled and renewable resources should be prioritised in a post-COVID-19 world. Environmental relief should come for the good of humanity.

 

Image: Hanoi, Vietnam, courtesy Emilio Labrador

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