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Opinion piece

Epidemic emergency, climate emergency: a tale of two crisis

It is now certain that the epidemic emergency we are all currently living through will have major not only health but also economic, social and political consequences. This is a time of immense uncertainty and, understandably, great worry. Some already claim the coronavirus crisis will push the climate crisis to the background; others take an opposing view, saying that state action to revive the demand side will be needed as soon as lockdowns are lifted, and that energy transition would be an ideal area for intervention.

The epidemic emergency is unlike the climate emergency in many ways: one took the world unaware, the other we have known about for a long time; one demands instant responses, the other will require sustained efforts over decades; one impacts older people more severely, the other mostly impacts younger, and unborn, generations; one is still without a vaccine, the other can be tackled with proven solutions. What they share is that they highlight the vital importance of protecting global public goods if we are to prevent severe harm to people, societies and economies.

Health and climate are public goods because, free by nature, they cannot be solely financed by the invisible hand of the market: we need national governments to order their preservation, what economists call externalities. They are global because pandemics and greenhouse gases know no borders: we need international institutions to coordinate national efforts. We also need scientists to research and explain the facts; finally, we also need private and public sector businesses to implement the right solutions.

During a time of epidemic emergency — when tens of thousands of lives are at stake, when lockdowns are necessary but also drastically reduce economic life, which involves now mainly activities vital to the nation, when greenhouse gas emissions happen to fall steeply as economic activity collapses — it is normal for government policies to prioritize combatting the public health crisis, without the need to impose a hierarchy of emergencies. But in time, once national economies pick up again, greenhouse gas emissions will increase again and we will have to resume the battle against the climate emergency.

At what pace? There is good reason to fear that once lockdowns are lifted, economic life will only resume progressively; not only because the supply side will have been harmed by corporate bankruptcies, but also because the demand side will probably be impacted worldwide: cut off from sources of income during the crisis, household spending will be lower as will investment by a corporate sector with weakened balance sheets. Public spending may well increase, particularly on health, training and support for the sectors most impacted by the crisis, but this will have its limits.

During this time of social crisis, if there should still be any place in public spending for ramping up the energy transition, perhaps by supporting a rollout of electric vehicle charging networks or energy efficiency retrofits for buildings, we can be certain that this would be a great investment for the future that the entire sector will welcome. But until such time as economic activity and household spending returns to pre-pandemic levels, the number one social policy concern will rightly be ensuring that people can make ends meet; sheer necessity means the end of the world will just have to wait.

However, once this emergency is over we should resist the temptation to endlessly defer efforts to combat the climate crisis. Accelerating the fight is vital, by cutting energy use and substituting fuels that emit no CO2 — nuclear and renewables — for fossil fuels in transportation, building and industry. If we fail to invest early enough and substantially enough in the protection of this public good then ecological, public health, social and economic disasters will multiply and, nature being what it is, doubtless there will be no vaccines nor barriers. Fortunately, in this case we have been warned and, with enough willpower, there remains enough time to act.