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The coronavirus pandemic shows how governments could respond to climate change

March 12, 2020, 9:48 AM UTC

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The coronavirus is now a pandemic in the eyes of the WHO. An increasing number of governments are implementing draconian measures—grounding planes and citizens—to prevent the viral spread. By and large, the public is adapting to the new restrictions too, changing their behavior to combat the crisis.

Watching governments respond to the crisis with, admittedly belated, but pronounced vigor, most environmentalists can’t help but wonderwhy the same hasn’t been done in the fight against climate change.

“We’ve seen that governments can act, and people can change their behavior, in a very short amount of time…On the one hand, it shows that it’s possible to do this, and it’s possible for this kind of mobilization of resources to take place in a short amount of time. In that sense, that’s encouraging. But we were never in doubt of that aspect,” May Boeve, executive director of climate advocacy group 350.org told Fast Company.

True enough, campaigners have long called for a “war time” level of response to climate change, but the threat posed by Covid-19 is evidently more evocative than climate change. It’s tempting to say that’s because the fallout from coronavirus—the sick and the dead—is more visible than that of climate change.

But of course, the impact of climate change is visible too in raging forest fires, melting glaciers and extreme weather patterns across the globe. The difference is that the effects of climate change aren’t new—or novel, like the coronavirus—and so aren’t jarring enough to shock the world into action.

Admittedly, responding to climate change with the same frantic panic that countries have responded to coronavirus would be a catastrophe. The global economy is edging towards recession as governments shut down cities to contain the contagion; markets are in disarray; and certain industries, like aviation, are struggling to cope.

The response to climate change needs to be swift but controlled. The business world and most political circles were at least beginning to move the needle on climate action before the pandemic hit. Major investors like BlackRock advocated for green portfolios and corporations all began brandishing their own green credentials.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 might cause leaders to pause sustainability plans. The virus has diverted attention away from the climate, several important climate policy meetings have been cancelled and, as the crisis eases, countries are likely to burn more fossil fuels to rekindle the local economy.

This year remains critical for the global response to climate change. With no end to the pandemic in sight the climate action agenda—like the rest of the world—will have to find a way to work through the crisis.

Eamon Barrett
eamon.barrett@fortune.com

CARBON COPY

A lighter shade of green 

The U.K. government released its budget for 2020 on Wednesday with some wins and some losses for environmentalists, although generally green campaigners seem to think the budget didn’t go far enough on climate issues. The budget ends a tax break on diesel for industrial vehicle and reduces taxes on electric vehicles; but it also budgets for major road expansions, which could break the U.K.’s climate pledges. Separately, a government-funded think tank reported that the U.K. can’t go climate neutral before 2050—unless people stop flying and eating red meat. The Guardian

Oil slick

Oil prices crashed Monday as a price war erupted between Saudi Arabia and Russia. The Brent closed down 26%, while U.S. oil prices dropped 34% to a four-year low on intraday trading. Shockwaves from the rout soon reverberated through other global markets, hitting energy suppliers in particular. Financial Times

In flames

Australian climate lobby group Climate Council warned the country could face worse wildfires than this season’s already record-breaking blazes unless the government takes resolute action on climate change. In a report titled “Summer of Crisis,” the group said Australia needs to cut carbon emissions and fossil-fuel exports. "Further denial and delay in taking action on emissions guarantees a worsening of disasters into the future,” the report said. Bloomberg

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CLOSING NUMBER

16% 

FAIRR, a network of investors that collectively manages some $20 trillion in assets, estimates that plant proteins, also known as “alternative meats,” could consume at least 16% of the current meat market’s revenues by 2050. That’s roughly $100 billion, according to data from Statista. The traditional meat industry faces a significant risk from climate change, not only as animal rearing becomes harder under new climate conditions but also as climate-conscious consumers turn their back on meat. Yet FAIRR says of 43 listed meat companies the group assessed, only two had published a scenario analysis for climate change.