A Monstrous Overlap COVID-19 and the New Climate Change Imperative

There is no evidence of a direct causal link between climate change and the emergence and lethality of COVID-19, but climate change is a pandemic enabler and accelerant.

Human activities have caused climate change with devastating environmental and social consequences. Now, the evidence is growing that many of these same activities are also responsible for the surge in zoonoses, such as the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Zoonoses are diseases that naturally transmit between vertebrate animals and humans. Epidemic zoonoses sporadically occur anywhere anytime.  A pandemic is a worldwide epidemic. And the COVID-19 outbreak, which was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on 11 March 2020, has since progressed at incredible pace ravaging countries around the world. If we are to recover after the pandemic, we need to strengthen climate action.

Alongside the detrimental effect of COVID-19 on public health, the world is experiencing an economic crisis triggered by the disruption of both supply and demand chains, lockdowns, social distancing rules, border closures and travel restrictions, as well as stay-home advisories. The pandemic has brought unprecedented shock, exposing the fragility of our global society. According to the Centre for Risk at the University of Cambridge, in a worst-case scenario, the COVID-19 pandemic could cost the global economy as much as $82 trillion over five years. In the best-case scenario, which is a speedy recovery, the potential loss could be kept at about $3.3 trillion.

The Punitive Economic Effects of COVID-19

There are still many unknowns about the COVID-19 pandemic, but many have argued its impact on African economies will be severe. According to the World Bank, sub-Saharan Africa could experience its first recession in 25 years, and the pandemic could cost the region between $37 billion and $79 billion in output losses in 2020. The bank’s analysis further estimates that sub-Saharan Africa’s economy could contract by as much as 2.4 per cent in 2019 and between 2.1 and 5.1 per cent in 2020, depending on how effectively the pandemic’s effects will be mitigated. Similarly, the International Monetary Fund has drastically revised its October 2019 economic growth forecasts for sub-Saharan Africa from 5.2 per cent down to -1.6 per cent. The outlook for Nigeria and South Africa, the region’s largest economies, at -3.4 and -5.8 per cent respectively, is even more pessimistic.

The pandemic is set to negatively impact Africa’s ability to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2063—the African Union blueprint and master plan for transforming Africa into the global powerhouse of the future. There are several parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. Both are systemic as well as existential threats to humankind. The mitigation of both calls for a whole-of-society response and international cooperation; and both affect certain demographic groups disproportionately.

Climate change, a result of anthropogenic global warming, is a long-term change in the statistical properties of the weather patterns that define the earth’s local, regional and global climates.  According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), heat-trapping greenhouse gases—chiefly carbon dioxide—from human activities are the most significant driver of observed climate change since the mid-20th century. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report, three of the top five global risks relate to climate change.

Africa is facing the sharp end of climate change. Even though the continent only accounts for a small share of global carbon dioxide emissions (about 4 per cent of the world’s total in 2017) and per capita emission rates are amongst the lowest in the world, it is disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The latter threatens the livelihoods of millions of Africans and compromises the continent’s development. This vulnerability is exacerbated by multiple biophysical, political, and socioeconomic stress factors that also constrain Africa’s adaptive capacity. Some parts of sub-Saharan Africa are projected to lose between 2 and 7 per cent of their GDP by 2100 due to rising temperatures.

Responding to climate change requires both mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation involves preventing or reducing the magnitude of future climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions. However, even if global warming is limited, some level of climate change is inevitable. Hence, adaptation is necessary. Adaptation means making adjustments and investments to mitigate the negative consequences of climate change, as well as taking advantage of its positive implications. The cost of climate adaptation for Africa could reach $50 billion per year by 2050 and $350 billion by 2070.

COVID-19: The Consequence of a Changing Climate?

There is no evidence of a direct causal link between climate change and the emergence and lethality of COVID-19, but climate change is a pandemic enabler and accelerant. The Harvard C-CHANGE Center states that the ‘root causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics.’ Global warming along with other associated factors such as habitat destruction, human encroachment, modernization of farming, etc., have been associated with the emergence of zoonotic diseases.

Moreover, a growing body of evidence indicates that climate extremes, which are increasing in frequency and intensity as a result of climate change, are likely to intersect with the COVID-19 outbreak. Responding to climate emergencies as well as public health crisis will be severely constrained by the unfolding economic crisis. This, in turn, is expected to worsen long-standing socioeconomic and other disparities, both within and across countries and regions.

Carbon Emissions: A COVID-19-Driven Historical Drop?

Initially, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic led to a reduction in greenhouse gases due to economic lockdowns. According to a Carbon Brief report, efforts to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections have triggered the largest ever dip in global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (the main driver of climate change). This year, GHG emissions are estimated to be around 5.5 per cent less than the 2019 emission levels. A preliminary calculation suggested an expected 17 per cent cut of daily global carbon dioxide (a GHG) emissions in April 2020 versus the 2019 average. In fact, the pandemic puts us at an important crossroad: it could either accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy or lead to a temporary dip followed by an economic recovery that relies on burning even more fossil fuels. (The latter happened after the global financial crisis of 2008.) Building low-carbon climate-resilient economies have by now become an integral part of post-COVID-19 recovery discussions. A low-carbon economy aims to minimize its output of greenhouses compared with today’s carbon-intensive fossil economy. A recent study by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment emphasizes the need to ‘build back better’. The paper notes that the systemic risks posed to human welfare and prosperity by both the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, call for shared responsibility and global solidarity to align the post-pandemic response with a transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient society.

In fact, some environmental narratives view the pandemic as symptomatic of our systematic mistreatment of the environment—an analogy to climate change as a symptom of our abuse of the world’s natural resources. Partly, this is vindication of the frustration that governments have not taken the climate threat as seriously as the COVID-19 response. It also speaks to the fear that climate change may again take a back seat as governments strive to allow economies to rebound from the current crisis.

Climate Finance is not Flowing Enough

While the preparedness of African countries to combat public health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic is debatable, it is obvious that they currently lack the capacity to transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy.

In the fight against the immediate consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak and the attendant economic crises, policymakers must resist short-termism at the expense of adapting to disruptive climate events. With no prospects for a vaccine against global warming, African leaders must not lose sight of the long course of treatment required to address the chronic threat of climate change to sustainable development on the continent.

The essential rebuilding of economies will need huge financial outlays. The world’s higher-income countries are deploying a range of prescriptive economic tools and policy initiatives that have been dubbed ‘COVID-Keynesianism’. This term describes increased government expenditure and lowers interest rates in a bid to stimulate COVID-19 impacted economies. These are far beyond the pressurized public budgets of most African countries. In Africa, public climate finance is largely inadequate, inefficient and ineffective due to poor revenue generation, rising public debt and onerous debt servicing.

Even though Article 4 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) enlists the help of developed countries towards mitigation and adaptation in developing countries as part of a larger finance and sustainable development agenda, climate finance has been a perennial sticking point at international climate meetings. Climate funds have been established by the donor community to help the least-developed countries. Funded majorly by multilateral development banks (MDBs), these funds have fallen short of global expectations, leaving a wide funding gap between what is needed and what is available. Even if all financing from the MDBs was devoted to climate action such as decarbonization and resilience, it would still meet less than 4 per cent of finance needs for full climate transformation. Furthermore, there are challenges when it comes to accountability and transparency as well as a general failure to find the right balance between funding for climate adaptation and climate mitigation, as well as their geographic allocation.

Impact Investing as an Opportunity

The growing awareness that climate change does not just represent negative environmental externalities and risks but also provides investment opportunities has attracted impact investors to both climate mitigation and adaptation. An interfaculty working paper defines impact investing as an intentional process of actively placing capital in businesses and funds that generate social or environmental good and a range of financial returns to the investor. The current size as well as the growth potential of the impact investing sector is contested. Often, cited numbers range from an estimated value of $715 billion by the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), to as high as $1.3 trillion in assets of signatories linked to sectors related to specific and environmental goals identified by United Nations’ Principles for Responsible Investing (PRI).

To impact investors, contributing to solving societal challenges is as important as achieving financial returns. Furthermore, impact funds typically target emerging markets which underscores their willingness to invest in regions like sub-Saharan Africa where investment needed for climate action is the greatest.

While the catalytic action of impact investors as change agents is crucial for building resilient post-COVID-19 economies, this is not a substitute but complementary to public finance. Critical aspects of public finance that must be reformed on the continent include weak tax regimes, poor revenue generation, rising public debt and onerous debt servicing, as well as inefficient and ineffective budgeting systems.

Africa is the Continent of Missing Data

An additional priority in combating COVID-19 and climate change is generating high-quality data. Without accessible, reliable and relevant data, actions (policies, plans, tools and technologies) by both private and public sector decision-makers will be severely hindered.

According to the final report of the Data for African Development Working Group, the challenges to Africa’s data gap are fourfold: funding for data collection is often unstable and inadequate; data accuracy is rarely checked; donors’ priorities sometimes overtake national ones, and national statistical offices lack incentives to improve their work. The Working Group’s strategies to overcome these challenges include improved and different sources of funding, building institutions that can produce quality and unbiased data, and prioritizing the core attributes of data building blocks.

In Search of Sustainable Post-COVID Recovery

Mitigation and adaptation efforts to climate change intervention need to be fully integrated into development planning and implementation. Recognizing this need, a 2013 report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) notes, the concept of low-carbon, climate-resilient development emerged as a key way of framing climate change intervention. Also in 2013, an International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) issue paper added that low-carbon, climate-resilient development involves bringing together three policy areas of climate change mitigation, adaptation and development to find synergies and beneficial outcomes. To ‘build back better’ post-COVID-19, the approach to recovery must reconcile climate change adaptation and mitigation with maximizing development opportunities.

A Progressive Review of the  Institute for Public Policy Research calls for three broad priorities for making low-carbon, climate-resilient development the basis of the COVID-19 recovery: make climate investments in housing transportation and industrial production the basis of COVID-19 recovery; build on our collective experience of COVID19 to drive positive societal changes; and hasten the transition to a zero-carbon economy with bold fiscal policies to change the incentive for system-wide changes in transport, energy and land use.

The review further highlights the need for reskilling and retraining to close the skills gap that prevents the deployment of many low-carbon technologies. It also recommends setting low-carbon conditions for corporate bailouts to encourage a shift from high carbon to lower carbon business models in the future. Researchers have also recommended five policy items that are well-placed to contribute to achieving post-COVID-19 economic recovery and climate goals. These include clean physical infrastructure investment, clean R&D investment, building efficiency retrofits, natural capital investment for ecosystem resilience and regeneration, and investment in education and training to address immediate unemployment from COVID-19 and structural unemployment from decarbonization.

 Circular Bioeconomy as a Game-changing Solution  

One approach for achieving low-carbon, climate-resilient development that has attracted global attention is the concept of circular bioeconomy, which is an overlap of two concepts—the bioeconomy and the circular economy. A bioeconomy is an economy in which sustainably produced biological resources replace all (or most) fossil resources in the production of various products for final and intermediate consumption. As an alternative to the make-use-dispose traditional linear economy, a circular economy eliminates waste through continual use of raw materials, components and products as much as possible.  According to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the circular bioeconomy presents a $7.7 trillion opportunity for business by 2030 and offers a nature-based solution that addresses five of our greatest environmental priorities, namely climate change, resource scarcity, biodiversity loss, food loss and waste, and land degradation.

Leading representatives from science, investors and industry recently met with HRH Charles Arthur George, The Prince of Wales to discuss how to accelerate the global transition to a circular bioeconomy to enable a greener, more inclusive world. One of the responses to Prince George’s call is an action plan of six transformative action points and four enabling action points, which mutually reinforce each other. The transformative actions include aiming at sustainable wellbeing centred around investing in nature and biodiversity, ensuring an equitable distribution of prosperity, and transforming industrial sector. The enabling actions for a circular bioeconomy of wellbeing are bringing purposeful innovation to investment and political agenda, ensuring access to finance, and broadening research and education.

Despite its enormous potential to help solve some of the challenges facing Africa, the circular bioeconomy approach has not been widely adopted in Africa. A 2017 review of the state of bioeconomy in Africa showed that only South Africa has a defined bioeconomy strategy. Countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, and Uganda have some bioeconomy-related activities.

A recent study published in Economic and Regional Studies found that African countries are poorly equipped to adopt the circular bioeconomy approach, when compared with countries from America, Europe, and Asia. The top African countries in terms of readiness to adopt the bioeconomy as climate action are South Africa, Kenya, Mauritius, Rwanda, and Morocco. The poor performers include Mauritania, Chad, Lesotho, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. South Africa, the only country with a defined bioeconomy strategy in Africa, has the best bioeconomy readiness index on the continent. South Africa’s top performance in the study highlights the importance of having a dedicated bioeconomy strategy which is crucial to climate-compatible post-COVID-19 recovery.

In addition to finance and lack of cohesive policies, other barriers to building back better in Africa include poor linkages and disintegrated efforts, high initial investment cost of the technologies, lack of technological know-how, lack of skilled workforce, and political instability.

Realising resilient African Societies

Building a resilient African economy post-COVID-19 requires supportive government policies around legal and regulatory framework, fiscal incentives, innovation system, education, training and skills, technology transfer and acquisition, and infrastructural development.  These favourable institutional arrangements are prerequisite to attracting and deploying resources for low carbon, climate-resilient post-COVID-19 recovery. In the face of state fragility and political instability, there are several international treaties that allow African countries to adopt legislative measures to institutionalize both pandemic preparedness and climate change adaptation as legal obligation even as the counties strive to achieve economic development. These include the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966); the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1997); International Health Regulations (2005); and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change (2015).

The Paris Agreement is an effective public health agreement. It builds upon the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to chart a new course in the global climate effort. The agreement seeks to accelerate and intensify the actions and investments needed to adapt to effects of climate change and transition to sustainable low carbon future, with enhanced support to assist developing countries to do so. Estimates show that the value of health gains from climate action would be approximately double the cost of mitigation policies at global level, and the benefit-to-cost ratio is even higher in some countries.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it brutally clear once again that we need to build resilient societies. Like other pandemics, this one will also come to an end. As we emerge from the turmoil caused by it, we will need robust regional cooperation and global solidarity to address the multi-dimensional, overlapping challenges of COVID-19 and climate change. Hopefully, COVID-19 will be the rehearsal, and we will learn from our experiences ahead of future challenges

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