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COVID-19 highlights scale of action needed to tackle climate change

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COVID-19 highlights scale of action needed to tackle climate change

The global reaction to the coronavirus pandemic sheds light on how far the world still must go to slow the pace of global warming, climate scientists have suggested.

Under normal circumstances, people have a hard time understanding the implications of longer-term risks when they have not yet directly experienced those implications, Peter Mennie, global head of ESG integration and research at Manulife Investment Management, said in an April 28 webinar hosted by sustainability-focused shareholder group Ceres.

"But when we're in an environment in which we're all now experiencing this totally different environment ... it helps remind people that these tail risks do exist and we do need to think about them," Mennie said.

Significant differences exist between COVID-19 and climate change when it comes to the root cause and ability to predict and plan for such scenarios. The rapid onset of the coronavirus prompted unplanned for social distancing mandates and economic collapse while the impacts of climate change have ramped up over decades and will continue to grow unless greenhouse gas emissions levels are not curbed.

The coronavirus is a so-called black swan event in which the risk of another pandemic had been forecast by scientists but very little was known about the form it would take or how it would play out in real-time. Even now, very little is known about how and when the world can exit the pandemic, scientists said.

READ MORE: Sign up for our weekly coronavirus newsletter here, and read our latest coverage on the crisis here.

In comparison, scientists, companies and other entities have conducted vasts amounts of studies, modeling and scenario analysis over the past several decades regarding climate change, which makes crafting a response and mitigation easier than for a pandemic, panelists at the Ceres webinar said.

And although the pandemic has forced many more people to work from home and is taking up much of the attention of companies and nations, investors say they are still pushing ahead on ensuring the recovery and future actions account for climate change.

John Goldstein, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. managing director and head of the sustainable finance group, argued that while social issues are gaining the spotlight during the coronavirus, climate change is not taking a backseat."We continue to have a steady stream of C-Suite conversations with companies on climate change," he said during the Ceres call.

A number of companies have made new climate-related pledges during the pandemic. Royal Dutch Shell PLC announced a new net-zero emissions target; the Bank of Montreal committed to source 100% of its electricity usage from renewables; Morgan Stanley pledged to no longer directly finance oil and gas exploration in the Arctic, new coal-fired power plants or thermal coal mines; and Citigroup Inc. said it would stop financing thermal coal projects by 2030.

Microsoft Corp. in mid-April committed to conserving more land over the next five years than it currently operates on, according to Axios. Also, some EU leaders aim to establish green-focused coronavirus exit strategies from the pandemic.

Massive emissions reductions needed

The pandemic has also highlighted how even when the world shuts down and fossil fuel usage and air and water pollution plummet as a result, those reductions are not enough to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change on a long-term basis.

Scientists have said that to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C relative to preindustrial levels, global annual emissions would need to fall by about 7.6% each and every year until 2030.

In contrast, the U.S. Energy Information Administration has forecast that emissions in the U.S. will decrease by 7.5% in 2020 as the result of the slowing economy and restrictions on business and travel activity related to COVID-19. However, the EIA noted that the sharp reductions may not last long, and as the economy rebounds and people return to normal daily activities energy-related carbon dioxide emissions could increase by 3.6% in 2021.

Scientists have suggested that tackling climate change can reduce the damage caused by other extreme events such as pandemics, especially as it relates to associated health impacts. Harvard University researchers found, for example, that people who have had long-term exposure to air pollution have an increased risk of dying from the coronavirus.

"Climate change did not go away," American Public Health Association Executive Director Georges Benjamin said in an April 1 webinar hosted by Climate Central, a group dedicated to helping journalists understand climate change. Climate change "is still impacting our health today" and lower-income and more vulnerable populations are being disproportionately impacted by both climate change and the pandemic, he asserted.

Will new clear skies prompt people to address climate change?

As part of stay-at-home mandates, pictures of clear skies over India and other locations and people being able to see through the usually murky water of Venice's canals have given people an idea of how different the world might look if not for human-induced emissions and other pollution.

But Andrew Steel, global head of sustainable finance at Fitch Ratings Inc. in an interview cautioned against assuming the public will make significant changes to their lives over the long-term if past epidemics are any indication.

"It's difficult to envisage how fundamental consumer behavior over the long-term will change because generally, you get something like the Spanish Flu, people have a short-term reaction and it fades away over time and people forget and then behavior returns to a normalized level," Steel said.