The rapid global spread of COVID-19 has demonstrated that no matter how successful America is at fighting this pandemic here at home, we will never stop this threat unless we’re also fighting it around the world. In this series of issue briefs, the USGLC takes an in-depth look at the global response and COVID-19’s impacts on vulnerable populations, global development and diplomacy, and the future of U.S. global leadership. Read more from our series here.

During the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many observed immediate declines in carbon emissions around the world which have proven to be the short-term results of the rapid decline of economic activity. China’s air pollution levels had returned to their pre-pandemic levels by June 2020, and the World Meteorological Organization reported that overall levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere still increased in 2020 compared to 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have a long-term disruption of efforts to address climate-driven challenges, especially in middle and low-income nations hit the hardest by the effects of climate change. 2020 and 2021 have been record breaking years for extreme weather events around the world, with extreme weather that is more frequent, intense, and widespread than years past. Climate-driven disasters threaten to overwhelm local health systems at a time when they are already under extreme duress. The costs of damage and recovery from a major disaster when compounded with the pandemic are estimated to be as much as 20% higher than normal, and annual averages of disaster-related losses could nearly double in a worst-case climate scenario.

  • According to the Red Cross, more than 50 million people around the world have been jointly affected by COVID-19 and climate change.
  • Madagascar’s recent famine, the first caused solely by climate change, has compounded both the health and economic impacts of the pandemic, creating a humanitarian crisis.
  • Spring and Summer 2021 have seen extreme weather events dominating headlines worldwide. Record-breaking heatwaves have fueled devastating wildfires in Turkey, Greece, and the western U.S. and Canada, which are worsening COVID cases as air quality plummets.

The economic costs of COVID-19 are likely to shatter the chances of meeting existing climate financing goals. The World Economic Forum estimates that $5.7 trillion in financing is needed per year for effective climate change mitigation and adaptation, yet the IMF has predicted that COVID-19 could cost the global economy more than $28 trillion in output over the next five years. The Eurasia Group warns that COVID-19 will drive a shift in attention and resources – which, while critical to ending the pandemic, will leave climate change “on the backburner.”

COVID-19 derailed global climate diplomacy, as the 2020 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) was postponed by a full year to November 2021. The talks are intended as a deadline for countries to submit tougher emission reduction targets and plans.

At the same time, the rapid global response to COVID-19 may also serve as a call to action for addressing the climate crisis. In the face of “Code Red for Humanity,” the IMF likens the urgent global threats of COVID-19 and climate change, suggesting that the international community should use similar tools and global cooperation to tackle both.

  • Investments in low-carbon development – including building sustainable infrastructure and improving energy efficiency – could both accelerate economic recovery and promote long-term sustainable growth, according to Helen Mountford at the World Resources Institute.
  • Climate resilient growth could lead to $26 trillion in net economic benefits by 2030.
  • Other countries are already taking steps to implement new green investments as part of their COVID-19 response. South Korea is advancing an ambitious climate agenda to support its recovery, and the European Union’s €750 billion recovery plan dedicated 25% of total stimulus funds for climate friendly measures, including supporting renewable energy and shifting to sustainable agriculture.
  • The Biden Administration hosted 40 world leaders for a climate summit in April 2021, where global leaders agreed to work together to limit warming to a 1.5 degree C increase. President Biden announced that the United States will target reducing emissions by 50-52 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.

The fight against climate change and against the pandemic are deeply intertwined. Many of the root causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics, so climate change mitigation is also a public health strategy. Deforestation, which mostly occurs for agricultural purposes, forces animal migration and greatly increases the risk of pathogen spillover from animals to humans.

Last updated September 2021

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