02/04/2020 by François Bergère
Health crisis should not put climate change to the back burner

As we’re entering the most acute stage of the coronavirus crisis, it’s natural that  all thoughts and efforts are concentrated on the ways and means to  save lives and rescue the economy  from effects of the pandemic. But we shouldn’t forget  about  the longer term threat to our lifestyle. Just like a number of political  leaders are still  climato- sceptics,  many (often the same populist  kind, it has to  be said) have also been pandemic-sceptics until  the virus started to  infect  their people in factories,  homes and streets.  In a way, the coronavirus crisis may have done us a service by  raising  awareness of these existential  threats. We should no longer take the “business as usual” scenario for granted: unprecedented events and crises can and do occur that can compromise mankind’s perspectives.

Whereas the pandemic is an acute but (hopefully) short term event, one that can be addressed within  a year or so through  the elaboration of a vaccine, the climate crisis moves more slowly. At the same time, this perceived medium to long term horizon has so far delayed the kind of immediate, “knee-jerk”  decisive action that was almost  universally  adopted for the pandemic. We have yet to realize the worldwide impact from climate change may be far greater – and more irreversible-  than what we are living  through today.  Let’s just  remember that  many  experts envision a positive effect  of the current health crisis on overall mortality  due to  the decrease of fatalities linked to  air pollution ( CO2 and NOX levels have decreased dramatically  these last  weeks in most  developed  & emerging countries), -not to mention  the drop in road traffic casualties- more than compensating the coronavirus death toll!

So, what is to be done? A global opportunity should arise in the coming months, which shouldn’t be squandered. As we switch from crisis response mode  into economic recovery , based on  stimulus packages, one can expect Infrastructure spending  will  play  a  key  role, as has been  the case in previous economic crises . In China, huge  plans for infrastructure spending to stimulate the economy are already  being prepared by provincial and national authorities.

The temptation will be great  to consolidate existing  activity  and employment by bankrolling   quickly the most  affected sectors like Mobility ( air transport infrastructure  in particular) or Energy  ( fossil  fuels, especially oil ,doubly affected, from demand side with the global shutdown, and supply  side  with  the current price war). But, although  difficult politically,  we should  take the time to pause and reflect  on the course of action we want  to  take. At the same time, we know fiscal  challenges will  be bigger than ever for most  governments  in view of the astronomical  bill  to  foot for the crisis and subsequent shutdown of activity. This is where institutional investors have a key, indeed historical  role to play to support ands steer the economy towards a more sustainable future

Public decision-makers, prodded by  civil  society  and supported by institutional investors,  must embed climate-change mitigation and resilience within these stimulus packages. Only this way will we ensure that we don’t bump from one economic crisis into  another, climate-linked crisis.

Big crises, whether economic or war-induced, are often the opportunity  for a country to start anew on fresh  bases ,and build new political consensus  that  can prevail over vested interests,  because they  demonstrate that the current situation  is no longer tenable . For the first time we are  facing  a universal  crisis : let’s not waste the opportunity  to emerge with  a global adapted response to  the greatest  challenge of our time.