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Does the global response to coronavirus suggest we can confront climate change?

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  • Environment
  • Global

What can we learn from the coronavirus pandemic about the conditions that we'll need in order to tackle the climate emergency?

Crises reveal the strength of underlying systems. Covid-19 is no different. Of first absolute priority is to respond to the pandemic itself, innovating and adapting as we go. However, in the background, we also need to be capturing what the current crisis says about our governance, economic structures, and social capacities to find more sustainable ways to live. There are encouraging signs of adaptation in the present moment but significant deficits too. Without addressing these deficits it is not yet clear that we can respond adequately to potentially even greater challenges such as man-made climate change.

Lessons from Covid-19

The purpose here is not to claim that the spread of Covid-19 proves that everything is breaking down and so we need a complete system overhaul along some predesigned line. Nor is it to present in a ‘here’s-one-we-prepared-earlier’ fashion, a prescription for how we can leap from responding to Covid-19 to solving the climate emergency. Rather, the intention is to learn from the current situation, the conditions that will have to be met if we are to attain a rapid transition to net-zero carbon emissions even within a decade.

Three factors seem to be especially critical: a sense of shared knowledge and commitment at global level, connected to the capacity to innovate at pace and scale at a national and local level, and individual understanding of the need to shift behaviours backed up by a willingness to do so.

The Covid-19 response has, in a complex space, revealed multiple weaknesses and capabilities at the global, local and individual levels. In each of these arenas there are good news stories to tell.

Global action

At a global level there has been rapid international sharing and learning. The World Health Organisation, through its deep knowledge of pandemics, has been a powerful and persuasive advocate for action. China, where Covid-19 first emerged, has sought to share scientific knowledge and know-how as the virus spread.

There is emerging understanding of preparedness needed in testing at scale, latent capacity within health systems, tracing and tracking capability, and clarity of communications. We can see the differential path taken in countries such as Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan with some success as ‘flattening the curve’. Their capacity to combine individual, relational and macro data with system responses is a million miles ahead of the blunt tools adopted (too slowly) in Europe and the US. It remains to be seen what the long-term cost in civil liberties may be. If there is a permanent shift in technology-enabled individual surveillance, then these costs will have to accounted for in the global knowledge ledger.

Despite the emerging evidence base that was available from January onwards too many countries, mainly those in Europe alongside the United States, acted too slowly and then had little choice but to move towards lockdown to prevent health services from becoming overwhelmed as they were in Italy. Too many countries were willing in the vital early stages of their response to put national exceptionalism and localised knowledge ahead of the global evidence base that was emerging. Parochialism is costly. Sweden is the latest to claim for itself cultural and medical exceptionalism which can be highly dangerous as the UK, the US, France, Spain and Italy have discovered to their increasing detriment. What is clear from this crisis is that humanity is interwoven with itself and nature. Humanity doesn’t stand apart and nor do nations.

What applies to coronavirus applies at least equally to the climate emergency. In the words of an ancient Chinese text printed on packages of support from Japan: ‘Lands apart, sky shared’. Stronger, more universal commitments are needed alongside pooling and sharing of global knowledge.

These commitments will fundamentally alter the global balance of power in the context of climate change. Central banks will have to coordinate in order to risk-weight carbon-intensive activities and finance ministries will have to use taxation to further emphasise the risk profile of damaging economic activity. This is a corollary of the Covid response to maintain ‘essential’ activity, such as healthcare and food distribution, but lockdown ‘non-essential’ activity. In the case of carbon-intensive activity, it would be a permanent lockdown – albeit implemented over years rather than weeks.

New trading alliances and disputes will open up and traditional trading partnerships may fray. If a Trump or a Bolsonaro refuse to take their obligations seriously then retaliatory action becomes likely. This could even change geo-political security relationships. Given the urgency of the commitment, moral hazard – where some feel they have an incentive not to adapt – can’t be allowed to be a barrier to concerted action amongst the willing, as it has been in international climate change treaty negotiations. Whilst pollution can’t be quarantined, we can quarantine lose-lose mentalities.

Concerted global action will inevitably mean that global supply chains in consumer goods and in food will be disrupted. Covid-19 has highlighted the dependence we have on these global production and distribution chains, not least in access to medical equipment and supplies as highlighted by Prateeksha Singh, and at some considerable environmental cost. Some, in this context, have foreseen an ‘Amazonification’ of the economy, as global platforms and supply chains increasingly occupy our consumption, crowding out local innovation. This potentially comes at an environmental cost and certainly with a hefty social price tag attached, as small businesses become unviable and casualised labour models spread further.

Local innovation

There is another way: local innovation. In the Covid-19 world we have seen two models of local innovation.

The first model is adaptive leadership, as explored by Ben Ramilingham et al, able to operate on the platform of precautionary systems with underlying resilience. Where there was preparedness, in a number of Asian countries in particular, governments were able to tilt towards the successful strategy of test, trace contacts, and isolate.

The second model, also involving adaptive capacity, was more reactive in character. We have seen the construction of new hospitals within weeks. Agile manufacturing capacity has been turned to producing ventilator machines rapidly. New collaborations between universities and industry, such as that between UCL in London and the Mercedes formula one team, have created new medical technologies. Medical trials of vaccines and testing technologies have been accelerated across the globe. The velocity of such innovation is mesmerising and has acted to fill deficits in advance planning.

And yet, notwithstanding these essential patches and responses, underlying systems of health, care, food, and product distribution will need to be far more innovation ready. Local systems of production and recycling will be needed if the ‘Amazonified’ future is not the only available one and this will need agile and bespoke local product printing and assembly capability – something explored in the RSA’s Cities of Making and Make Fashion Circular work.

Could such capacity have produced personal protective equipment to global specifications rapidly? Yes, quite probably. And such innovation capacity will be crucial in a world more assertively responding to climate change. The Fab City network is exploring precisely how to combine common global knowledge with local innovation and partnerships in order to create locally productive manufacturing systems.

This applies equally to food systems, explored by the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, where flexible local loop food production and consumption become necessary to unpick large scale global food distribution. Covid-19 has revealed us to be very dependent on long, thin, tightly connected, carbon-heavy chains of supply. New forms of local food cultivation, including in urban spaces, could de-risk and de-carbonise the food system. International development support could be necessary to help countries and regions heavily dependent on the current model of trade.

Behaviour change

One of the most remarkable phenomena of the past few weeks has been the surge in social innovation; spontaneous solidarity to connect people as they physically distance. This connects local innovation to individual behaviour change. At a small scale, impromptu musical performances performed from balconies or in driveways have lifted the lockdown gloom. 8pm on a Thursday British people have stepped outside to applaud the NHS and care workers. Mass volunteering has erupted through social platforms, organised by the NHS and Covid Mutual Aid.

Working practices are shifting in health and care as at-distance support becomes crucial. Some of these stories including how local care services are aligning with volunteers have been captured on the Social Care Future blog. Simple behaviours are changing: we create room for one another as we pass on the street or in the park and, on occasion, let those who don’t adapt have a piece of our mind. Now we can’t meet them, we are getting to know our neighbours.

In the short term, local services, civil society and the NHS are trying to make sense of how to channel this upsurge in solidarity, community-centric individual behaviour change, into real outcomes. The wider opportunity is to translate community solidarity into permanent behaviour change, to enhance local services in a relational direction. To confront climate change will require an intersection of individual action reinforced through solidaristic mechanisms. Covid requires responding to the emergency now. Climate change action requires stronger future-facing norms.

Responding to the climate emergency

Even if we can’t understand the emergency now, we have to imagine how our behaviours now influence a future that leans towards the manageable and away from the downright destructive. To do so requires concerted deliberative action, at national level – for example, through the Climate Assembly – and local level to tie community action to local innovation in services, commerce, manufacturing, food production, homes, energy, transport and waste systems. People and communities will need to support each other through the transition.

A major lesson from Covid-19 is that there are trade-offs, winners and losers. Cost-free narratives of changes should elicit a degree of suspicion. The status quo position of a carbon transition by 2050 is complacent and inadequate in its desire to avoid hard choices and make a slower transition than may be effective in combating planetary warming.

Some of the narratives within the ‘Green New Deal’ are equally as problematic – promising, as they sometimes do, that there are only virtuous circles. There are very tough choices and the transition will impact those who are in the renewable part of the economy more than those who work, invest, depend on the fossil economy. Those individuals, sectors and communities will have to be helped through the transition. This is where Universal Basic Income, place-based inclusive growth strategies backed by investment and strong community-focused institutions such as community banks, and community deliberation become so important.      

There is nothing in the Covid-19 pandemic that suggests we are incapable of gathering knowledge and commitment globally, or of innovating locally both prospectively and reflexively, or of shifting our norms and behaviours in the face of transcendent challenge. Nor does it suggest that we are yet on the right trajectory at a rapid enough velocity to contend with climate emergency. We don’t yet know if the conditions for system change identified by Matthew Taylor – the need for change, the momentum for change, and practical possibility to change – are in place.

If we are in a moment of change, Covid-19 gives us some encouragement that at global, local and individual levels we can properly respond to the climate emergency, albeit with massive changes necessary. So there is hope. Soon after we are on the other side of Covid, very soon in fact, we will also need commitment and action at scale. Over to us.


This is the latest in the RSA's Bridges to the Future series, exploring prospects for change in a post-coronavirus world. Read more in our first blog in this series and listen to the first Bridges to the Future podcast. Over the coming weeks we will be publishing briefings, podcasts, blogs and hosting more online events in this series. 

Thank you to Josie Warden who provided additional material for this piece.

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  • It appear the momentum for change is not here, as our democratic principles appear so hollowed that even "enlightened parties" such as the RSA do not accept that our representative system alone is not going to make the difficult decisions. I would have expected that the RSA, which recently had a 2 year programme promoting the benefits of deliberative citizen process, would be actively supporting such a movement now.

    The UK Climate Assembly is totally insufficient and not even supported by the government (only 6 select committees - excludes DEFA!).  Predefined 2050 date (while UK already falling well short of its own current targets) and limited scope also means assembly is has little chance of having any significant impact. What the UK does coming out of the Covid-19 meltdown sets the path. Trying to chase GDP will only dig our hole deeper. We need to face facts and work on a transition, winding down fossil fuels, and supporting more sustainable society. The economy should be serving society, ordinary people, instead of serving itself and the top few percent of the population. We need a legitimate national Citizens assembly (only the national government has resources, tax and legal power to make changes required) to address the crisis (current virus as well as climate and ecological).  We need to get this out of polarised party platform as even a well meaning Green New Deal will not go far enough, as it gets horse traded. Citizens need to be given, and take responsibility  in determining what type of society we want, and I am confident that it is one where people are at the centre and not GDP. 

  • "Covid-19 gives us some encouragement that at global, local and individual levels we can properly respond to the climate emergency...".

    Honestly! This is just silly. C19 is a disaster. The human experience thereof offers no encouragement of any kind to any country or continent. The global ecology gets a short-term hit as economies stop but in the long run the ability of the democracies to organise decarbonisation will assuredly weaken. The planet needs GDP growth!

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