Climate Action

Helena Molin Valdes on the impact COVID-19 has had on the Climate & Clean Air Coalition

Ahead of the COVID-19 & Climate Change webinar on 30 April at 15:00 BST/GMT+1, we caught up with Helena Molin Valdes, Head of Secretariat at Climate & Clean Air Coalition, to discuss the impact COVID-19 has had on the Climate & Clean Air Coalition.

  • 28 April 2020
  • Rachel Cooper

Ahead of the COVID-19 & Climate Change webinar on 30 April at 15:00 BST/GMT+1, we caught up with Helena Molin Valdes, Head of Secretariat at Climate & Clean Air Coalition, to discuss the impact COVID-19 has had on the Climate & Clean Air Coalition.

How has COVID-19 impacted your ability to fulfil the important work you do? What has been the response from partners and organisation you work with? And do you think this will positively or negatively impact the Climate and Clean Air Coalition ultimate goals?

COVID-19 has limited our ability to meet in person as a Climate and Clean Air Coalition (‘Coalition’ or ‘CCAC’), which in ‘normal’ times enables us as a group to share information and make important personal connections. However, it has not slowed the work of the Coalition as we have quickly adapted to new ways of communication. What the crisis has done is spur us to achieve the goals the CCAC has set for itself. It has enabled us to take a step back and look at what is possible and where change can happen in a way that benefits the economy, development, ecosystems and the climate. We have a decade to achieve what is needed to retain the temperature increase way below 2oC, towards 1.5oC. We need fast emissions reductions also to safeguard human health from air pollution. Reducing the short-lived climate pollutants fast will help achieve both the climate target and sustainable development goals. What this crisis has shown us (in the extreme) is that behavioural change can result in rapid environmental improvements for air quality and climate emissions. The issue is of, course, how will this be maintained in a ‘normal economy’? How do we make the low-emission behaviour ‘normal’?

The immediacy of the crisis has resulted in a large percentage of the world’s population to act selflessly and at great economic cost, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We need similar global behavioural change to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. We can manage the transition to cleaner air and a safer climate to prevent similar shocks in the future, put in place polices and regulations that make us less vulnerable and steer the economic recovery with economic investment in sustainable options so we build back better and greener. In the end, we think that this crisis will positively impact the Coalitions goals. It has shown people what is possible.

Our CCAC Scientific Advisory Panel has started to find answers to some of the questions around the links to emission reductions, health, climate and air pollution as a learning from COVID-19.

We have not seen pollution and emissions levels drop to this extend after one specific event. What does this tell us about the challenges we face and the investment required to rapidly decarbonise and shift away from pollution and emission dependent societies?

The crisis has shown us the direct response from specific human activities and emissions levels. This is a stark confirmation of the contribution of our everyday activities to sources of emissions of the air pollutants that we breathe and the greenhouse gases that drive global warming. The speed with which emissions have fallen shows how quickly we can improve our environment when motivated.

The challenge it puts up for us is how we restructure our lifestyles, our economies and our relationship with the environment as we move toward less polluting and less emission dependent societies. Sustainable development is a vital component to our environmental goals. We can’t leave the vulnerable behind if we want to beat pollution and protect the climate. We need to move toward a new economy that enables the participation and leadership of all people. This means increasing clean and renewable energy to those still reliant on fossil fuel or biomass to cook and heat their homes. It will require rethinking some of our economic structure, and to ‘build back better’ through the promised stimulus packages.

The crisis can be seen as an ‘experiment’ unprecedented in modern times. Scientists and academics have just started analysing data collected in the last couple of months and I’m sure that there many reports in the pipelines that will show the relationships between air pollution and COVID-19, and importantly where we can best reduce future emissions. We already know what must be done in many sectors, this can help fine-tune our pathway to achieving increased emissions reductions. 

Many do not connect health and climate change but they are Inextricably linked. Many don’t link pollution levels with health risks or climate change. What has COVID-19 shown us about the links between health and our impact on the environment? 

The crisis has shown us that the environment and our wellbeing are closely linked and that we are fast pushing up against environmental limits. The crisis underscores the fact that protecting eco-systems and the natural services they provide, protects not just human health but the global economy as well. It is the realization from the zoonosis that spread this virus from an animal to humans, and the need to protect ecosystems and biodiversity to prevent similar events in the future. And the understanding that reducing air pollution will help prevent diseases that cause 7 million premature deaths every year and make people more vulnerable to succumbing to respiratory diseases like COVID-19. In conclusion:  we need to rebalance our relationship with nature. Environmental issues are NOT the concerns of hippies or environmentalists, or a small sector of society. They are fundamental to all of society, to every economic sector, to health, development, education and social security. Ensuring environmental health and sustainability needs and all of government response and coordinated global cooperation and effort. 

Many in the climate/environment space believe this could be a transformational moment in our ability to tackle climate change. Whilst the COVID-19 crisis is an extremely tragic, can we learn anything from how we have responded and apply this to the climate crisis?

COVID-19 has shown us that preparation and a fast and coordinated response is vital to success. We need to act fast, while also developing a long-term plan for success and to do this we need to share information and technology honestly and openly. It has shown us that self-interest fails in the face of a global crisis. To succeed we need to all work together.

The CCAC’s efforts on climate and air pollution works in a similar way. We are working to rapidly reduce short-lived climate pollutants to reduce the rate of warming fast, in this decade, while supporting longer term efforts to reduce the impacts from long-lived greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. We are, to borrow a phrase from the COVID-19 crisis, trying to rapidly flatten the curve for climate. We are helping to put in place steps that are transitional (like improving vehicle emissions standards and fuels), and transformational (like electrification of vehicles, human centred city planning, and new modes of transportation), to ensure that governments and people can act where they can. The Coalition is set up to encourage global cooperation by having all countries work together to share knowledge and solutions. We are working with countries to develop national action plans that not only speak to national needs and priorities but also help achieve global sustainable development and climate goals.

You will be sharing your insights on the Covid-19 and Climate Change webinar later this month. Can you share what you will be presenting on and why our audience should tune in?

1.- We need to be cautious to not sound celebratory about the reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants during COVID-19 lockdowns. This is important both from an ethical standpoint and we also don’t want to send the wrong message that “all we need to get clean air and less climate change is to shut-down the global economy.”

2.- While the scale and breadth of the impact of the pandemic is unprecedented in modern history, we have also observed decreases in air pollutant and greenhouse gas emissions during previous short-term events and recessions such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2008 global recession. While these decreases result in public health benefits, they come at the cost of major mental and physical health problems and deaths, rapidly increasing unemployment and staggering economic dislocation.

3.- As was the case with past shocks, these reductions in emissions are not sustainable and will return to pre-event levels unless policy measures are implemented to promote transformational change. This is the real challenge we need to address fast.

Helena Molin Valdes will be sharing further insights during the COVID-19 & Climate Change webinar on 30 April at 15:00 BST/GMT+1. Register for the webinar here.