Editor’s note: this article is part of the “Covid-19 Reset” project, where the LéO Africa Institute is asking its fellows and associates to imagine a new, progressive post-covid world for our respective communities and countries.
Mother earth is breathing again! Temporarily at least. Surprisingly, the coronavirus has been the unlikely hero – the break in the clouds that has gifted the planet the steepest decline in global greenhouse emissions since World War II. In fact, it is estimated that at the height of the lockdowns, daily global carbon emissions reduced by 17% compared to the mean emission levels in 2019. While this good news is sufficient cause to break into song and dance, it is unfortunate that these celebrations could be short-lived.
With economies roaring back to life, livelihoods and industrial recovery might take pre-eminence with the supposed ‘distant and abstract’ subject of climate change falling below the pecking order. If the shackles of inaction continue to cripple the urgency towards climate action, the coronavirus pandemic could just have provided a temporary respite – a delay of an inevitable but equally deadly climate crisis.
However, if there is anything that we have learned from the pandemic, it is that the global community can step-up to fight a crisis. In the case of COVID-19, the threat of the virus has been met with the appropriate force, scale and urgency that the crisis deserves. There wasn’t much politicking, no disputing of facts from science and better still, the smallest personal actions collectively done by individuals such as wearing a mask or social distancing are going a long way in making a difference.
On the other hand, the subject of climate change has been greeted with low ambition targets, empty speeches and very little corresponding action. As a matter of fact, while reading through the myriad of environmental protocols, agreements, deals and policies, we are almost re-looking at the case of Alice in Wonderland. The same moving picture shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations and yet the same inaction.
It is ironic that face masks might be made a permanent fixture in our daily lives as a result of poor air quality rather than the COVID 19 pandemic. As a matter of fact, the toxic levels of air pollution in the globe can be credited for the early deaths of approximately 7 million people each year. With these facts in our hands, it is only imperative that we felt the same sense of emergency about the climate crisis as we do about the coronavirus. The recent improvements in air quality during this period, for instance, could have offered a taste of the air we might breathe in a low-carbon future. This should light a fire under our bellies to accelerate the transition to a clean-air future reality.
While the unfolding health crisis is only the most visible part of the iceberg, underneath the pandemic lies an emerging but rather silent calamity. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report recently noted that the food security and nutritional status of the most vulnerable population groups in the globe is likely to deteriorate further due to the health and socio-economic impacts of COVID-19. In fact, the pandemic could tip over 130 million more people into chronic hunger by the end of 2020 exacerbating the persistent hunger and malnutrition predicament that is already stalking 746 million people globally. Therefore, as we maul over flattening the curve for COVID 19, it is also imperative that we flatten the hunger curve. In the same breath, it is also critical that we build the resilience of our food systems resilience to climate change since while COVID 19 poses a temporary threat to farmers and food value chains, climate change impacts to our food systems will be lasting, likely for generations.
With this, the recovery from these human tragedies of epic proportions necessitates a holistic and comprehensive view. Although we may think about the coronavirus pandemic as well as the hunger and climate crisis as separate – and perhaps unrelated – challenges to be tackled independently, the reality is far from it. They are actually deeply connected, and our understanding, appreciation, and responses should be shaped accordingly. Building back better would mean shedding the myopic view and having a coordinated response to these interconnected global issues. This pandemic shows us how devastating the consequences of inaction could be. It also shows how one crisis can intensify other existing crises. We, therefore, need to break down silos and improve how we work together across the various but related issues of our recent times: COVID-19, hunger and a climate crisis. It is that simple, yet that profound, that difficult yet that easy – we have to build back from an integrated perspective since we cannot escape the reality of living in an interconnected world.
Victor Mugo is a youth in Agriculture advocate and climate activist. He is the Regional Coordinator for the Climate Smart Agriculture Youth Network (CSAYN), a lead author for UNEP’s Global Environmental Outlook for Youth-Africa and a Borlaug-Adesina Fellow.