The Nexus of COVID-19 & Climate Change

The unexpected COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the interconnection between economic, environmental, and healthcare systems, leaving academics and institutions wondering which important lessons could be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic period for the global struggle to effectively address climate change. A group of researchers from UAB recently undertook the most comprehensive review of scientific articles concerning the relationship between COVID-19 and climate change.

Using computational linguistics and qualitative analysis, the researchers identified 7 main topics among 204 articles in the literature surrounding this nexus: impacts of the pandemic on climate change and policy, sustainable recovery, public concern, lessons learned from the pandemic for climate change action, effects on the economy, food security and poverty, collective responses to crises, and lastly similarities and differences between the two.

Concerning the topic 1) impacts of the pandemic on climate change and policy, many studies address the causal relationship between the restricted mobility during the pandemic and air pollution or emissions. However, these appear to be significant only during the lockdown period. For topic 2) sustainable recovery after COVID-19, most papers are commentaries or opinions, with some involving literature discussion, while the main issues addressed are climate change targets post-COVID-19, addressing both negative and positive outcomes. Concerning 3) the evolution of public concern about climate change and COVID-19, some studies show that the debate on climate change has decreased in attention due to the dominance of COVID-19 in recent news, while the most cited one also argues that we should learn from positive behaviours in response to COVID-19, what the authors call a “trial run”. Concerning topic 4) lessons from COVID-19 for climate change action, the articles are quite diverse, addressing the wide array of lessons and opportunities learned from one crisis that could be applied to the other. Several studies examine regional lessons, focusing on adaptation strategies for climate change, while other investigate individual behaviours during the pandemic. For topic 5) effects of COVID-19 and climate change on the economy, food security and poverty, many articles study the impacts using a variety of indicators, such as the exchange rate, inflation or the link between GDP growth and energy consumption. For what concerns 6) collective responses to crises, many of the studies reviewed – mostly commentaries and perspectives- address collective action (or inaction) under COVID-19, in relation to similar action under climate change, and highlight that the collective responses have been inadequate in terms of international cooperation in both cases. Clearly different opinions emerge in the literature about future action to tackle climate change, and while some authors derive hope from government responses to COVID-19 for climate change governance, others are more skeptical. For topic 7) similarities and differences between COVID-19 and climate change, the articles reviewed compare the two crises from several perspectives, for instance the way they contribute to human fear, the politics and the responses to both crises, and risk management. While the two crises share important similarities – as the need for collective responses, international cooperation, and the involvement of experts in political decisions – they are also separated by major differences. Most importantly, COVID-19 is short-term and direct, while climate change is slower, complex in its mechanisms, and threatening not only humans but also ecological systems.

52 of the 204 reviewed studies discuss specifically the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic that could potentially be applicable to climate policy. As expected, the most cited articles related to climate policy lie within the topic of sustainable recovery after COVID-19, with a focus on sustainable recovery actions, collective responses to crises, and policy lessons from the pandemic that are applicable to climate change. It must be noted that the studies do not show a clear distinction between mitigation and adaptation policy focus. Lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic suggest nevertheless that climate policy should focus on several approaches: sustainable recovery, implementing measures that account for energy and transport efficiency, investments in low- carbon technologies and in education for new climate-induced industries, and regulation and pricing strategies to enforce individual climate action.

The review also shows that – because of the lack of updated temporal data – it is still difficult to assess the long-term social, economic, and environmental impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as its influence on opinions about public policy in different fields, as health or climate. For example, several of the studies reviewed found evidence that COVID-19 confinement measures reduced air pollution and global emissions via reduced mobility, but it has not yet been studied whether such behavioural changes are persistent. Prior studies based on survey questionnaires show moderate optimism that people will work more remotely but evidence for impacts on climate action is scarce.

This review of 204 papers concerning the relationship between COVID-19 and climate change is an invaluable asset for academics and policy makers interested in studying how to make climate policies more acceptable in Europe. This issue is one of the focuses of the undergoing European project, named CAPABLE – which co-funded this literature review – and aims more broadly to help develop and evaluate effective, yet socially and politically feasible, climate and environmental policies in Europe.

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