Australia

Climate scientists say coronavirus could be Australia's golden opportunity

Students protest in Sydney during February's national day of action against climate change. Source: AAP

Climate experts say the way Australia chooses to rebuild its economy after the COVID-19 pandemic will seal its climate change fate.

Australian climate scientists are urging the government to recognise the similarities between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, arguing they could be the key to stopping global warming.

Professor Matthew England from the University of New South Wales’ Climate Change Research Centre said acting early, listening to expert advice and mitigation were the keys to solving both crises.

Matthew England of UNSW's Climate Change Research Centre.
Matthew England of UNSW's Climate Change Research Centre.
UNSW

While the coronavirus is posing a serious risk to millions of lives right now, Professor England said climate change will threaten even more lives over the next five decades.

"We’ve seen all around the world that the nations ignoring the best advice of their scientists are suffering the most, and climate change is no different," he told SBS News.

"We have expert reports that have been tabled for the last three or four decades, but many nations are ignoring those, so I think that COVID-19 provides a wake up call for what happens if you do ignore the best scientific advice."

Revealing the possibilities

Emissions around the globe are already dropping significantly as the world stays home and production grinds to a halt, with China already recording a 25 per cent drop in emissions in the first quarter of 2020. 

Photographs of smog-free Los Angeles skies, crystal clean canals in Venice and clear views of the snow-capped Himalayas from India have circulated online, showing visible improvements.

While these significant improvements in air and water quality are showing people around the globe what is possible when emissions are reduced, Professor England said it is not time to celebrate yet.

Instead, he says Australia needs to recognise the opportunity COVID-19 presents to rebuild in a more environmentally friendly way.

Los Angeles is experiencing its longest stretch of good air quality since 1996.
Los Angeles is experiencing its longest stretch of good air quality since 1996.
Ted Soqui/Sipa USA

"This is going to be a major stall in the global economy, but out of this pandemic we're certainly going to see a huge economic boom and it's going to be a real chance to make that boom a low-carbon boom," he said. 

"To solve climate change, we actually need large scale innovation and the huge economic boom that is poised to happen out of this pandemic."

'Fight or flight'

While COVID-19 has already killed at least 90,000 people, the World Health Organisation has warned that climate change will kill as many as 250,000 people per year by 2030.

Professor Mark Howden of the Climate Change Institute said governments’ differing approaches to the two crises was as simple as how our brains are wired.

Mark Howden is the director of the Climate Change Institute.
Mark Howden is the director of the Climate Change Institute.
ANU

"The coronavirus is appealing to our hindbrain, our fight or flight responses, rather than our forebrain, our planning and strategic responses," he told SBS News.

"Humans are much more attuned to responding to the short-term rather than the long-term.” 

While Professor Howden is expecting to see a drop in Australian carbon emissions of roughly five per cent due to COVID-19, he said this will not be the first time such a drop has occurred. 

Australia’s emissions saw a similar drop during the global financial crisis of 2009, but were back to their normal levels within two years. 

"This is simply because we’re much less active economically, and emissions are fairly closely tied to GDP, so the big challenge will be what happens after the coronavirus,” he said.

However, unlike during the GFC, Professor Howden said coronavirus has now given governments the proof that a health crisis can be halted by an all-in effort.

"Coronavirus has meant that governments have ditched often long-held ideologies and been forced into very pragmatic responses," he said.

"I think climate change actually needs that - it needs to move away from ideological positions into responses which are informed by the evidence, the science."

SBS News contacted the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science for comment but did not receive a response.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

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