If climate change is going to be the next pandemic, how can we prepare for it?

The recent publication by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came with the headline, ‘Code Red for Humanity’ in other words painting a gloomy picture and impending catastrophic outcome.  The IPCC and its publications are known to create a buzz every time they are released but this one turned out to be the biggest of all. The reaction to the report and its key findings by the general public and key stakeholders made it feel like that the publication came out of the blue. Just to remind that this was the sixth assessment in the series and the results from the earlier ones were not very favourable to humanity either.

So what was the key difference in this report when compared to the earlier ones?

The main takeaway in this publication was the examples cited by the researchers and correlating key global events to the impact of climate change, most of them are clearly visible or fresh in memory. The report also came during a time when major cities from around the world are facing unseasonal weather events ranging from severe heat waves, agricultural & ecological droughts and unseasonal monsoons to floods. The focus now shifts to the next report which will be around impacts, adaptation and vulnerability of climate change.

The report and its global impact come at a crucial time, as the world or most part of it is looking to transition into a post pandemic economy. So, what are the biggest lessons from fighting the COVID-19 pandemic that can be taken for climate action? In order to do that, let’s look at the similarities between the two.

Technology adoption

Getting the vaccines developed in record timelines showed that the fundamental technology solution was available in some form. The magnitude of the crisis hastened the development and deployment at scale. The story of m-RNA technology is a case in point. The same is true for climate action, we have solutions that can delay climate disasters, we have technology that has been successfully developed but it needs to deployed at scale and it is only a matter of time before it replaces the conventional systems that are hastening climate change, until then the pursuit to refine the technology and solutions need to continue.  

Investments

When governments look for immediate solutions they are willing to do everything it takes to make it happen, the same was true during the pandemic. Governments in the US, EU and other major economies were willing to fund early stage development of whatever was close to being a feasible vaccine candidate. Countries in fact went a step further by placing orders and paid advance to procure vaccines that were not even out in the market. The outcome was that the research and manufacturing was always in full steam and companies didn’t have to worry about the downsides of failures.

A similar trend is now emerging in clean-tech investments globally. Large investment funds driven by the world’s top billionaires are placing bets on a wide range of early stage companies spanning the entire ecosystem of clean-technologies in the hope that some of them can really have a positive dent in the universe.

Distribution

One point was quite clear to all the major global stakeholders, until and unless the majority of the global population had access to vaccines, the COVID recovery was never going to be complete. So, they stepped up their efforts through the COVAX, large scale procurement of vaccines that can be distributed to low income countries that don’t have access to medical resources (COVAX- Vaccine Global Access led by Gavi). It was a wonderful initiative on two fronts, one it helped reduce the procurement prices and two it gave access to the best vaccines from around the world. The intent was genuine to work together to develop solutions for a universal problem. A similar approach was mooted by the Billionaires Club led by Bill Gates through the Breakthrough Energy Ventures, invest in upcoming technologies and ensure it is universally available.  The solutions can be available but will it get there on time?

There are common challenges that shall prevail from the COVID-19 challenge like Equity, Financial Commitment and Global Alignment.

Equity

Just like how the vaccine rollout questioned the foundations of equity, solutions aimed at climate change mitigation will raise eyebrows when it comes to global equity. The rich world which had access to vaccines right at the start were planning for booster doses despite the fact that a large global population still doesn’t have access to vaccines in the first place. They flexed their muscle power of procurement to order for booster doses after vaccinating a majority of the population. The same shall hold true when it comes to clean-tech adoption, countries can claim to have reached net-zero emissions, 100% renewable energy and the like by the middle of the century but a large group of countries particularly the developing ones will be looking at peak emissions during the same time period (peak emissions – a time when the emissions of the country are expected to hit a peak and then decline).

Financial Commitment

Vaccine development was heavily influenced by the amount of capital investment done by countries. Early stage development of vaccines were boosted by government funding and the advances paid for procurement. Pooling of funding for a global alliance like COVAX was a big positive. On the contrary there is no clear visibility of the funding committed by the developed countries as part of the agreement signed at the end of COP 21. Although some investments have been made, the scale and speed seen during the pandemic times is clearly lacking when it comes to climate action. It is high time the investments in climate action are focused and directed for global scale and equitable distribution.

Global alignment

The one big differentiator from how this has panned out globally for the post COVID recovery will not be the same for climate change. You cannot vaccinate your population and shut the borders for others who are not immune like in the case of a pandemic. Nature has no borders and when climate disasters strike it’ll be a global one and it will not differentiate based on your contribution in fighting climate change ( A clear takeaway from the recent IPCC report). You can be the largest economy and could have contributed billions in climate action but the fight against climate change is not really over until it’s over. We cannot live on with it just like how we have come to the realisation that virus is now part of the health system and we can live on with it. Climate change and its aftermath is not something we can live on with. Climate actions need everyone to win at the same time.

How can the same be replicated in climate action?  

If one thing the COVID pandemic fight has taught us, it is the impact of global collaboration and what can be done when the global powerhouses come together to solve a problem.

Call to COP 26 leaders –

The collaboration or the effort that was put in place to ensure that COVID-19 was fought at a global level should be the only way out for ensuring the climate action is going to be significant. Rather than just commit for a certain percent of emissions reduction, focused investments and a plan of action to ensure the solutions and benefits reach every corner of the world should be on the agenda.

What’s the opportunity here?

Finally, as a professional in this space I clearly see a big opportunity to contribute towards global decarbonisation, more particularly on ensuring the clean-tech solutions reach the end customer. Partnerships and collaborations are going to be key to ensure that products and solutions from the developed world get to the end customer in the developing world. How about having an alliance like COVAX that ensures the access to the right solution at the right price for developing countries? Entrepreneurs and global companies should ensure that the technology pool is always full and open for everyone who needs it. It is possible but a long way to go, but the pandemic has at least given us a hope that when problems of epic propositions come around, everyone is able to unite and work together ( at least for a short period). It’s that intent that is necessary as we brace up for the next pandemic in the form of climate change.

Cover Image from IPCC

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s