Five ways to build resilience to pandemics AND a warming planet

This article is written by a participant of the Global Center on Adaptation’s Young Leaders Program. The program develops young talent to become future leaders in global climate change adaptation efforts by enhancing their knowledge, skills, and ability to thrive in an international environment.

A fter Covid-19, the climate emergency will not have gone away, so we must build resilience to extreme events – not only to this pandemic, but also to the impacts of climate change. However, only by adopting an integrated approach towards resilience – that considers the economic, environmental, institutional, physical, and social dimensions – it will be possible to promote adaptation to climate change. In order to reach this ‘new world‘, society must be able to harness the benefits of current measures and promote sustainable development.

Here are five ways current responses can help build resilience and protect us from climate-related events as well as pandemics.

1. Economic response plans should not focus on growth

Governments are launching stimulus packages to recover from the pandemic consequences, but they do not necessarily consider cooperation with other countries and the needs of the most vulnerable groups (e.g., indigenous communities, informal settlements, women and children). Nonetheless, as this is a worldwide problem that affects the whole of society, it requires a global and comprehensive response.

There must be an effort to ensure that responses not only improve the livelihoods of the most vulnerable communities, but at the same time tackle climate change. For example, global leaders are being asked for an $8 billion fund to address health and economic challenges in poor countries, mainly in Africa, Asia and Latin America, to prevent another wave of the virus. If those investments are done with a long-term sustainable vision, the resilience of those communities could be enhanced.

2. Environmental conditions are an essential for our lives

The pandemic is a result of environmental degradation, in particular due to wildlife trade, destruction of biodiversity and deforestation (more details here). In other words, nature is trying to show us that we need respect the boundaries of the planet, recognize our dependence on the environment and its agents, and reconsider the way we behave towards it.

With cities and countries worldwide in lockdown, there are several reports of improvement in environmental conditions, like the decrease in air pollution. The quarantine is also showing people the importance of nature in their lives, of enjoying open public spaces, of going outside to get a fresh air. Trends like the ‘Build Better Balconies‘ reinforce that reasoning. Hopefully, this will also show that we can promote growth while preserving the natural environment.

3. Institutions can guide sustainable development

Covid-19 is reinforcing the need for an effective governance, yet highlighting divergences of integration across levels of governments and with citizens. The current strategies are not enough and they need to help building resilience. For example, as discussed by the Climate & Development Knowledge Network, existing natural disasters response plans are out there and could have greatly benefited from an integrated planning approach to tackle the pandemic.

The commitments from the Paris Agreement, Climate Change Action Plans and Resilience Strategies, among other instruments, should be more effectively implemented to ensure a sustainable recovery. Likewise, the path to this ‘new world’ should be built in collaboration with decision-makers, leaders, and citizens. More than ever, a systematic approach should be adopted to accelerate action towards climate change adaptation.

4. Physical infrastructure should be climate-resilient

The sudden increase of pressure on infrastructure, such as supply-chain networks and health systems, has been pushing operating conditions to unexpected levels. Consequently, to increase the resilience of those systems, a significant amount of investment will be required. According to the World Bank, only for Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMIC), this represents between $1.34 to $3.84 trillion in capital and maintenance spending [1]. Even though governments need to prioritize investments due to current lower revenues, putting infrastructure on hold will have great long-term impacts.

Instead of implementing “shovel-ready” projects to improve operational conditions at a higher cost, adopting a long-term vision that incorporates nature into infrastructure has the added value of enhancing adaptation and resilience at a lower cost. For example, a flagship report from the Global Commission on Adaptation estimates that every $1 invested in making new infrastructure resilient to climate change could yield almost $5 in benefits. Additionally, promoting climate-resilient infrastructure can help unlock and achieve up to 92% of the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals [2].

Chart show net benefits for a total of $1.8 trillion invest across the five areas from 2020 to 2030. Source: World Resources Institute

5. Social inequality is increased during shocks

Inequality and segregation create different levels of vulnerability and resilience across the local or national level. To worsen the situation, vulnerable groups from poorer countries are the ones most affected, by both Covid-19 and the impacts of climate change. Consequently, their security nets and well-being should be secured to avoid the negative impacts of a disaster event, no matter the kind.

A one-size-fits-all approach it is not adequate for informal settlements in Asia, Africa, Latin America or elsewhere, they have to be adapted to each local context. Examples show that citizen engagement has been more effective to respond to Covid-19 than top-down approaches, as well as community initiatives have been mainstreamed at national response plans [3]. The involvement of vulnerable groups in the development of recovery strategies is essential, and should also be continued to build resilience to climate impacts.

To conclude, we need to use this momentum to reconfigure how people, government and environment interact with each other, by identifying the underlying conditions of crises and favoring characteristics that enhance adaptation to shocks. We need to promote resilience to not only tackle the pandemic, but also adapt to climate change and reach a ‘new world’.

The ideas presented in this article aim to inspire adaptation action – they are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Global Center on Adaptation.

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