How to prevent catastrophes
Pandemics become more likely as we continue to transgress planetary boundaries controlling earth's stability
As the Covid-19 crisis passes and governments try to shore up collapsing economies, many will be tempted to roll back their climate and nature commitments. They should resist that impulse.
This century will be characterised by speed, scale, connectivity, and surprise, with global pandemics, climate chaos, deforestation, and mass extinctions of species invariably interacting with and reinforcing one another. If today's short-term measures to reopen economies do not promote long-term economic resilience through effective governance of the global commons, the next disaster will be only a matter of time.
That is because we face a new risk landscape, of which Covid-19 is merely the latest manifestation. That landscape defines our current geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which humanity is the dominant force and source of pressure on the planet.
Besides the ongoing threat to global public health, climate, and biodiversity crises loom large. We are at serious risk of exceeding the 2°C limit on global warming in only 30 years, and we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction of species since the dawn of complex life on earth 540 million years ago. Crossing these tipping points could have devastating and irreversible effects on people everywhere.
Moreover, these health, climate, and biodiversity crises are linked. Pandemics, for example, become more likely as we continue to transgress planetary boundaries controlling earth's stability. Rapid deforestation accelerates global warming and degrades natural wildlife habitats. Add high-risk behaviour (such as so-called wet wildlife markets) and low emergency-response capacity, and conditions become ripe for disease outbreaks that spread from animals to humans and then spiral into catastrophic global disease outbreaks.
Indeed, scientific evidence shows not only that such zoonotic illnesses are on the rise, but also that viruses are likelier to leap from animals to humans when deforestation destroys wildlife habitats, and species are traded and exploited.
The global risks are directly linked to a scarcity of global public goods such as disease control, as well as to overuse of global commons such as clean air and water, a stable climate, biodiversity, and intact forests.
But surprise is the new normal concerning the things that matter most - health, security, and sustainability. Our long-term priorities must therefore be to improve the provision of global public goods, build resilience into our global commons, and find ways to mitigate the inevitable economic shocks.
So, as policymakers seek to kick-start the economy, three reforms are essential.
First, governments must integrate the various multi-trillion-dollar rescue packages into a green recovery plan that follows certain key principles. For starters, such a plan should increase carbon prices in order to steer public and private investment toward renewables and conservation. True, some governments might regard carbon prices as further obstacles to investments in roads, bridges, and power plants. But infrastructure investments without the right incentives further lock in a high-carbon economy, making future adjustments more costly, if not impossible.
Meanwhile, G20 governments should use 50-year bonds to establish an investment fund that finances projects aimed at boosting economic sustainability and resilience. Financed by all European Union member states, such a fund would signal political solidarity and reduce uncertainty, removing a critical barrier to innovation and entrepreneurship. It should implement clear sustainability criteria and provide credits at below-market interest rates.
In addition, global supply chains must use geographical diversification and the accumulation of reserve stocks to become more resilient to natural disasters and pandemics. In particular, the design of supply chains must incorporate security, health, and sustainability considerations to help ensure flexible, reliable, and safe provision of goods and services, such as local food and clean energy production.
The second set of reforms must focus on generating human prosperity within planetary boundaries, thus avoiding the catastrophic effects of global warming, environmental degradation, and zoonotic disease outbreaks. Such an approach would also improve air quality, significantly cutting the number of people dying prematurely every year from air pollution (currently estimated at about seven million). And it would reduce the risk of droughts, floods, fires, and disease outbreaks, as well as the food insecurity that often accompanies them.
In concrete policy terms, this implies adopting science-based targets that go beyond global warming. The Paris climate agreement's goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C should be augmented with global targets for halting biodiversity loss and keeping land and ocean ecosystems intact.
Lastly, we must strengthen the governance of our global commons. Just as the atmosphere is a shared global common, because the behavior of one country affects every other, so are human interactions with wildlife, which affect the likelihood of zoonoses. And, to be better prepared for future pandemic outbreaks, we urgently need to strengthen the capacity of international institutions such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Program.
Today's multiple catastrophic global risks call for urgent collective action by all countries so that we become true stewards of the entire planet. This is not asking for the impossible, but rather for recognition that everyone's individual health and prosperity depends on our ability to respect planetary boundaries and properly manage what belongs to all of us.
Johan Rockström is Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Professor of Earth System Science at the University of Potsdam. Ottmar Edenhofer is Director and Chief Economist of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Director of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, and Professor of the Economics of Climate Change at Technische Universität Berlin. -Project Syndicate
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