top of page

Climate Change and COVID-19


COVID-19 first diagnosed in humans in November 2019 and wreaked havoc on the world, killing over 2 million people and disrupting virtually every aspect of people’s lives.  COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, one that transmits from animals to humans. These jumps, known as spillovers, are increasingly common as human pressures on nature grow.  Ebola, SARS, MERS, and Zika are all examples of zoonotic diseases that have emerged over the last century.

Today, the risk of another disease transmitting from animals to people is higher than ever, due to destruction of habitats (specifically forest loss) with consequently higher human-animal interaction and thus more chances of transmission. Other reasons are unsustainable food production with for instance highly intensive livestock farming, and consumption practices with in some cases elevated levels of animal product intake. Additionally, the illegal wildlife trade (as wildlife is more likely to host new viruses as compared to domestic animals) and climate change are also believed to have an effect on the spillover of zoonotic diseases according to research from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.  Disease vectors are organisms that carry diseases and transmit them into other organisms (such as parasites and microbes). Warming temperatures are changing where these vectors are found and how long they live, increasing the threat of transmission.  In addition, raising sea level is caused inter alia by the melting of polar ice caps which again causes coastal flooding and thus is a concern for water-borne zoonotic diseases.

COVID-19 proved the connected nature of global systems and underscored the importance and fragility of multilateral cooperation. Many of the drivers of climate change such as food production, travel, and global trade are the same drivers of zoonotic disease transmission, so addressing them systemically has tangible co-benefits. The massive disruption COVID-19 provoked global economic systems provides an opportunity for rebuilding in more sustainable, equitable ways that safeguard health systems, nature and the climate.


A United in Science research paper published September 2020 showed that global lockdowns had a significant and immediate impact on emissions of greenhouse gases, with daily levels in April 2020 falling by 17% compared with 2019. This was the most dramatic reduction recorded but in actuality the three-month confinement period led to an average 8% reduction and this was not maintained. As the world returned to work, emissions rose and by June were within 5% of the previous year. The total reduction of emissions in 2020 was approximately 7%.


The aviation industry, which is a relatively small source of emissions globally (approximately 2%), faced the largest single reduction of any sector for emissions, estimated to be 75% at its peak and 40% total over the course of the year. 

According to an article in Nature, emissions reductions due to COVID lockdown measures were more significant than those of the 2008 financial crisis because they were more closely tied to constraints in individual behaviour. After the 2008 financial crisis, emissions in the recovery period 

ncreased by 6%.  It is, therefore, important to monitor recovery efforts and their effects on emissions. Most reductions in emissions and consumption observed in 2020 are likely to be temporary as they do not reflect structural changes in the economic, transport or energy systems. However, it is complex and difficult to predict. For example, in the transportation sector, cities like Bogota, New York, Paris and Berlin began rededicating street space for pedestrians and cyclists to enable safe individual mobility during the pandemic.  It is expected that some of these changes will become permanent. However, on the other hand, the auto industry has been rebounding better than expected, which some experts say could be due to concerns over utilizing shared public transit given health concerns.

It is crucial to note that the temporary reduction did not affect the current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and “in fact the CO2 will continue to accumulate and the level will just increase a little less than without this reduction” according to the WMO. This is evidenced by readings at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii. Across the whole year, Carbon Brief estimated that CO2 levels will rise by 2.48 parts per million (ppm). This increase is 0.32ppm smaller than if there had been no lockdown – equivalent to 11% of the expected rise. Only when emissions drop to near zero will natural systems begin to uptake carbon, reducing its overall levels in the atmosphere.

2019 marked the first year ever that Earth Overshoot Day, the point at which human’s consumption passes the earth’s capacity to regenerate resources for that year, slipped as far back as July, July 29 to be precise, meaning that the global population had exhausted its share of the yearly resources already way before time. This was a worrying development, illustrating mankind’s out-of-control consumption. The COVID-19 pandemic caused a contraction to consumption and pushed back Overshoot Day to August 22. The Global Footprint Network who calculates Overshoot Day noted that disaster is not a sustainable way to reduce resource consumption and it is crucial that systems be redesigned to create lasting consumption patterns within the Earth’s capacity.



The pandemic was a disaster for the global economy, and will likely have long-lasting effects. Many voices have perceived these events as the proof of failure of our social, economic and political systems.This situation, despite all the suffering it generates, is also a unique opportunity to reconstruct our economies in a more sustainable way. The most polluting industries, such as the oil and gas industry and aviation, which have historically driven climate change, have been incredibly impacted by the pandemic due to extreme and immediate consumer pattern changes caused by lockdowns. Governments are issuing record breaking relief packages, putting over 12 trillion US-dollars directly into industries to limit the damages of the virus on our economies. The way this money is distributed now will have an impact on the next decades. It is a one time opportunity for countries to favour renewable energy, to support massively the expansion of public transport systems, and to reduce investments in fossil-fuels.  All over the world, people have mobilised around this same idea: “Build back better.” 

Many stimulus plans allocated a substantial amount of funding to climate action. For illustration, the EU’s recovery package, which includes a fund worth €750 billion and its €1.074 billion long-term budget, for instance, sets aside 30% of the total expenditure for climate action. However, the evidence about where governments are issuing financial support with their relief packages shows in the majority of cases a worrying picture about realizing the Build Back Better principle. Countries such as the US for instance have rolled out recovery packages with little to no consideration of the climate.  Vivid Economics published a Green Stimulus Index that estimates only USD 3.7 trillion of the total USD 12.7 trillion were spent directly in industries that will have a positive impact on climate and nature, and that announced stimulus to date will have a net negative environmental impact in 16 of the G20 countries and economies (see graphic below). This was similarly shown in specific high-polluting industries. For example, in aviation, while some countries like France put environmental performance conditions on the airline industry in return for bailout money, numerous airlines received financing without conditions. There were similar issues in the energy industry globally. A consortium of NGOs and research centers issued the to show which segments of the energy industry received stimulus funds. The findings of this tracker indicate that G20 countries have committed at least USD 151 billion to fossil fuels and at least USD 89 billion to clean energy. 

Picture 2.png

Beyond being a global health crisis that has cost over 2 million lives, the Covid-19 pandemic has had far-reaching consequences for the world’s societies, people, economies - including multilateral relations and climate action. 2020 was set to be a critical year for global climate governance, marking the 5 year anniversary of the adoption of the Paris Agreement. It also marks the year in which Parties shall submit updated and more ambitious NDCs and set long-term strategies for transitioning to a low-carbon society for 2050. With current NDCs, we are still heading towards global warming of 4°C. More ambitious NDCs are therefore key for fulfilling the Paris temperature goal of limiting global warming to 1.5-2 °C.  Some countries have updated their NDCs or made commitments to ambitious reductions even amid the pandemic - China for example made a commitment to become carbon neutral by 2060 - however, the vast majority of countries have not. See the Climate Target Update Tracker for an updated list of countries who have updated or submitted new NDCs to date.

virtual meeting.jpg

Both the intersessional climate change conference SB52 in Bonn, Germany as well as COP26 in Glasgow, UK were postponed to 2021. Essentially, the UNFCCC schedule was delayed by a year. Nevertheless, this did not mean that the UNFCCC pressed pause. Virtual events such as the Race-to-Zero November DialoguesClimate Dialogues: Virtual Climate Action Continues, and the Climate Ambition Summit on the Anniversary of the Paris Agreement, all took place to speed up the ‘Race to Zero’ towards COP26 in 2021. 

Besides delays, the pandemic has also caused issues for various mechanisms related to climate change. For example, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) was set to come into effect in 2020 and utilize 2019-2020 as the baseline for emissions reduction. However, given that 2020 was not a representative year and the low baseline would have meant very sharp reductions, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) changed the baseline to 2019, eroding trust with civil society and claims of utilizing COVID-19 to “water down” the process. The airline industry also used the pandemic as a means of convincing the Member States of the ICAO to push obligations to offset emission growth until at least 2023.

There is growing concern that delays in the negotiations process will severely impact climate action and the implementation of the Paris Agreement. With policy-makers and societies overwhelmed by dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting economic recession, climate change is at risk of being upstaged.

Some experts are seeing Covid-19 as a wake-up call, others as the end of multilateralism. What most agree upon is that multilateralism is in a crisis. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it was nation-states and not international organisations which were key players in managing the response to the health crisis. At the beginning of the pandemic, EU states closed their borders, countries were engaging in export protectionism and competed for personal protective equipment. Covid-19 is a transnational problem, yet, countries focussed their attention within their borders, instead of on international cooperation. This problem represents another challenge for the UNFCCC, since a well functioning system for international cooperation is essential for implementing the Paris Agreement and global climate governance. 


One of the biggest worries of the climate change community is the impact of COVID-19 on climate finance. Both mitigation and adaptation action to the effects of climate change require large amounts of money. In particular, Global South countries rely on financial and technical support from Global North countries to implement their transition. Unfortunately, the impact of the virus on global economies and financial systems is likely to significantly decrease the flow of money for climate action. 

Some of the poorest regions in the world have been affected by COVID-19, natural disasters and climate-induced extreme events all at once. Exemplary, vulnerable populations in Bangladesh have to face a health and sanitary crisis and the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan, reminding us that that efforts against coronavirus should be combined to the fight for climate resilience, and that funding for climate change related adaptation and loss and damage are still insufficient. At the same time, humanitarian crises such as the refugee situation in the Mediterranean Sea make social distancing and sanitary health impossible for the affected.

Many countries see no other option than to contract loans with the International Monetary Funds, which in return locks them in austerity strategies, with disastrous effects on public services - including health - and on inequalities. 

While there is significant reason for concern on the state of climate finance in a post-COVID world, there are innovative solutions already arising that could address multiple problems like debt, climate change, loss of natural resources and the pandemic at the same time, such as debt swaps.    


Collective action problem: a scenario in which there is conflict between the individual interest and the group interest. In the scenario, each individual in the group faces a choice to either act selfishly or cooperate. In a collective action problem it is always in the individual’s best interest to act selfishly, regardless of what the other individuals do. However, if all individuals act selfishly, then they all get worse outcomes than if they all cooperate. In other words, it is in the individual’s interest to act selfishly, but it is in the group’s interest to have everyone cooperate. This is the conflict between the individual interest and the group interest.


Vulnerability anywhere is vulnerability everywhere. Coronavirus and similar viruses represent a tragedy of the commons that matches environmental issues, where focusing resources on individual resilience fails to address the global conditions that give way to a pandemic. “Each human carrier is like a gambling machine that gives the virus trillions of lottery tickets – and the virus needs to draw just one winning ticket in order to thrive... And that means that we need to protect every person in every country."


The difference is that the virus offers both an immediate personal interest and a tragedy of the commons, with immediate* substantial communications about its impact. Climate change has only gradually built up a cohesive, broad communications consensus - and even then, not universal and often challenged. As a policy lesson: clear communications about the local human costs (life) about inaction has increased acceptance of economically and socially difficult actions (lockdowns).


Policy lesson: Sharing of resources to “hot spots” of virus have increased goodwill without substantially hampering individual country responses.



WHO, ILO, FAO, IFAD 2020. Impact of Covid-19 on people’s livelihoods, their health and our food systems. Joint Statement. (online) Available at:'s-livelihoods-their-health-and-our-food-systems


Eric Holtaus, 2020, “We aren’t just stopping coronavirus. We’re building a new world”, The Correspondent. (online) Available at:


Christine Armario, 2020. “Bogotá fomenta uso de bicicletas para prevenir COVID-19”, AP News. (online) Available at:


Jillian Ambrose, 2020. “Investors fear there will be no bright post-Covid for oil majors”, The Guardian. (online) Available at:


ICAO, 2020. Economic impacts of COVID-19 on Civil Aviation. (online) Available at:


SEI, IISD, ODI, Climate Analytics, CICERO, UNEP, 2020. The Production Gap, 2020 special issue. (online) Available at:


Energy policy tracker, 2020. (online) Available at:

IISD (2020). New EU Budget And Recovery Fund: Green Stimulus And Climate Budget Cuts - Sustainable Recovery 2020. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 November 2020].


Philipps, L. and Braun, D., 2020. The Future Of Multilateralism. [online] International Reports. Available at: [Accessed 10 November 2020].


World Resources Institute. 2020. Not Enough Climate Action In Stimulus Plans. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 November 2020].


Dominic Hofstetter, 2020. “Will COVID-19 derail climate finance?”, Climate-KIC. (online) Available at:


Lili Pike, 2020. “China’s commitment to become carbon neutral by 2060, explained”, Vox. (online) Available at:


UN WOMEN, 2020. As Bangladesh battles COVID-19 and the aftermath of Super Cyclone Amphan, women’s organizations lead their communities through recovery. (online) Available at:


Adriana Quevedo, Katie Peters, Yue Cao, 2020. The impact of Covid-19 on climate change and disaster resilience funding: trends and signals, ODI Briefing papers. Available at


Zoha Shawoo, 2020. “There will be no ‘green recovery’ for poor countries without loss and damage finance, Climate Home News. (online) Available at:


Nadia Daar, Nona Tamale, 2020. “A Virus of Austerity? The COVID-19 spending, accountability, and recovery measures agreed between the IMF and your government”, Oxfam. (online) Available at:


IIED, 2020. COVID-19, debt relief, and the climate and biodiversity crises, webinar of the 9th September 2020. (online) Available at:


(Authors: Petra Tschakert, Assistant Professor of Geography; Karl Zimmerer, Professor and Department Head of Geography; Brian King, Assistant Professor of Geography; Seth Baum, Graduate Assistant and Ph.D. student in Geography and Chongming Wang, Teaching Assistant, Geography. Additional material provided by Daniel Kunches, Ph.D. student in Geography and HDNRE.,would%20benefit%20from%20environmental%20protection


Yuval Noah Harari. In the Battle Against Coronavirus, Humanity Lacks Leadership, TIME, 15 March 2020.

(Use China/Canada PPE exchange despite current tense relations

bottom of page