A pandemic has slowed the pace of life. It has not, however, slowed climate breakdown.
Before COVID-19 appeared on anyone’s radar, world leaders and climate activists declared 2020 a “super year for nature”, with several global climate conferences set to chart a course for slowing climate breakdown and protecting biodiversity over the next decade.
But most of these conferences have been pushed to 2021, leaving observers wondering: What does a super year for nature look like during a pandemic?
On Earth Day, Conservation International climate experts offer the steps that countries and individuals must take to ensure that postponing climate conferences won’t mean postponing action — and give reasons for hope amid a time of crisis.
1. Listen to the science
From practicing safe social distancing techniques to developing proper medical treatments, one of the most crucial ways that countries can help curb the spread of COVID-19 is to follow guidelines backed by research, public health experts agree.
The same is true of the climate crisis, said Shyla Raghav, the vice president of climate change Strategy at Conservation International.
“We have the science that tells us exactly how we can confront climate change as a global community — and we must listen to it.”
To help governments determine where to focus their efforts to slow climate change, recent research by Conservation International scientists revealed how much carbon is stored in various ecosystems across the globe — and which areas of nature we can least afford to lose.
The scientists identified pockets of “irrecoverable carbon” — vast stores of carbon that are potentially vulnerable to release from human activity and, if lost, could not be restored by 2050. (Why 2050? It’s the year by which humans need to reach net-zero emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change).
Irrecoverable carbon spans six of the seven continents, including vast stores in the Amazon, the Congo Basin, Indonesia, northwestern North America, southern Chile, southeastern Australia and New Zealand. These ecosystems contain more than 260 billion tons of irrecoverable carbon, most of which is stored in mangroves, peatlands, old-growth forests and marshes. This amount of carbon is equivalent to 26 years of fossil fuel emissions at current rates.
“We are talking about a generation’s worth of carbon contained in these critical ecosystems,” explained Allie Goldstein, a climate scientist at Conservation International and the paper’s lead author, in a recent interview. “The good news is that we now know where this irrecoverable carbon can be found — and it is largely within our control to protect it.”
And countries don’t need to wait for global negotiations to protect these places, according to Raghav.
“There is a suite of conservation tools that governments can use to protect this carbon, from establishing or expanding protected areas and national parks, to providing financial incentives for sustainable agriculture, to supporting community conservancies and indigenous peoples’ rights over the land they steward.”
Not only could conserving these places help avoid climate catastrophe, research shows that protecting nature could also help prevent future pandemics by limiting humanity’s exposure to wild animals — and the diseases they may carry.
“When human activities such as logging and mining disrupt and degrade these ecosystems, animals are forced closer together and are more likely to be stressed or sick, as well as more likely to come into contact with people,” said Lee Hannah, an ecologist and senior climate change scientist at Conservation International, in a recent interview.
“Fundamentally, we need to reimagine our relationship with nature.”
2. Engage local communities — and make sure everyone’s voice is heard
While global climate conferences are put on hold, country governments have an opportunity to build new connections with cities and communities — and to look locally for climate action, explained Shyla Raghav, Conservation International’s vice president of climate change strategy.
“Countries and communities have long been divided on how to address climate change. Slowing down has given us a chance to strengthen connections between local communities and governments — and start making changes right now.”
As individuals self-isolate to curb the spread of COVID-19, many governments are already using technology such as webinars and virtual meetings to continue climate negotiations at both a local and national level. Climate activists are also moving their efforts online — and using social media campaigns directed at government offices to push for climate action.
But not every community has equal access to technology, added Maggie Comstock, Conservation International’s senior director of climate policy.
“Technology has the power to connect people worldwide — but it is difficult to match the pace of progress achieved through in-person negotiations,” Comstock said. “Governments must make an extra effort to engage those that might not have access to a full suite of technology, such as indigenous peoples. All voices are important in the fight to stop climate change, and we can’t leave any countries or individuals behind.”
For indigenous peoples and vulnerable communities worldwide, the impact of COVID-19 is exacerbating existing challenges such as food insecurity and limited access to information, explained Kristen Walker Paneimilla, senior vice president of Conservation International’s Center for Communities and Conservation.
“In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, countries and organizations must support indigenous and local communities both financially and by recognizing indigenous rights.”
3. Take a breath — but don’t take your foot off the pedal
There is at least one bright side to the postponement of these global climate conferences, according to Raghav.
“The brief hiatus gives us time to prepare even more for success when the conferences occur in 2021 — and to advocate for more ambitious targets and commitments for countries and sectors to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.”
While this hiatus offers an opportunity for countries to prepare, Comstock emphasized that world leaders must continue to act on climate policy where they still can.
“2020 can still be a year of ambition — we can’t take our foot off the pedal. Even though most global climate negotiations are postponed, now is the time to accelerate climate action at a national level,” said Comstock.
“This year, countries are encouraged to update their country-level commitments under the Paris Agreement — how each country is supporting efforts to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius. Countries must find ways to make their emissions reductions goals a reality and increase the ambition, conferences or no conferences.”
4. Learn from the world’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic
Experts agree that countries must take similarly rapid and decisive actions to end the climate crisis — which could kill approximately as many people as the number of individuals who die of cancer and infectious diseases today if global warming is not limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), research shows.
The silver lining: The world’s response to COVID-19 shows that it is possible for humanity to take action at the scale necessary to stop climate change, Raghav said.
“Crises like this pandemic demonstrate the incredible capacity of societies to come together in the face of unprecedented, insurmountable challenges and adapt,” she said. “This is exactly what we need to tackle climate change.”
Additionally, the recent decline in global emissions illustrates that changes in human behavior can show tangible results for climate action — even at an individual level.
“In the same way that the world is cooperating to slow this pandemic, it is going to take just as much urgency and participation from governments and individuals to slow the rise in global temperature,” Comstock said.
“If there is one positive thing that people can learn from this pandemic, it is that every single person has a role to play to end global crises.”