The term "flatten the curve" is now well known in the battle to stop the spread of Covid-19. But scientists have been using similar terms regarding carbon emissions and biodiversity loss for decades.
The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says this Covid-19 pandemic is the world's biggest challenge since World War II. So, how do we use what we have learnt from the pandemic to address the climate crisis and rapidly reduce carbon emissions?
I think we can all agree that returning to how things were before the pandemic is not particularly inspiring – we can do better than that. This reset presents an opportunity to rebuild things in ways we did not have the means to before. But what does that look like, and what can we all do?
During the Covid-19 pandemic all fields of science, business, and community, not just health experts, have been working tirelessly together to try to get on top of Covid-19. We have seen in an immediate crisis how to respond as a community when provided good scientific advice. This is science and citizenship working together to solve a collective problem. The collaborative approach has shown us that when people put values and world views aside and listen to the science, we can overcome adversity during times of crisis.
Now, we need to use the same community-focused thinking to try to address climate and environmental problems. People are now used to receiving daily updates about Covid-19 cases (e.g. confirmed, probable, recovered, deaths). The graphs, numbers and figures have helped us understand how are tracking.
The exponential growth of Covid-19 has shown us how quickly things can change over a short period of time. Over a longer time period, carbon emissions and their resulting effects have also been increasing exponentially. If this exponential increase in emissions continues over the coming years, the severity of extreme weather events will look nothing like the impacts we are seeing today. And like coronavirus, the potential for severe damage from climate change will also cause significant financial losses and hardship for many.
Peter Drucker famously said: "what gets measured gets managed". We have seen the way we have managed our response to Covid-19 numbers effectively in New Zealand, and people have closely followed these numbers through the daily updates. But we have not seen the same approach when measuring or tracking information on climate change. The global average of atmospheric CO2 was about 280 ppm (parts per million) before the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. It is now above 400 ppm, a level that has not been seen since the mid-Pliocene epoch (5 – 3 million years ago), where temperatures were 2C to 3.5C higher than pre-industrial levels, and sea-levels 15-20 metres higher than today.
The Guardian publishes the global CO2 level from Mauna Loa in Hawaii on its weather page every day. Perhaps in New Zealand, media could publish or present during the weather bulletin or alongside the stock market prices the daily CO2 level measurements from Niwa's atmospheric monitoring station at Baring Head. Other measures such as air pollution in Auckland could also be published each day to create public awareness and buy-in.
While the severity of the Australian bushfire crisis seems like a distant memory now, the impacts of severe weather events such as droughts, floods and tropical cyclones have not gone away. Climate breakdown is already harming people and ecosystems around the world. The need to communicate daily climate information and illustrate how we are tracking is more important than ever.
Young people already know the urgency to reduce carbon emissions, as is increasingly evident with the climate strikes, and their refusal to accept the status quo. Unfortunately, it is the decision makers today that determine their future.
Saying we are in "good hands" and waiting another 10 years for action is too late. What we all do in the next 10 years will determine if we live in a world that is 2C, 3C or 4C warmer than today by 2100. Above 2C, we cross many dangerous tipping points including widespread ecosystem collapse, and devastating extreme weather events such as deadly heatwaves and severe floods.
Of course, the top priority right now is addressing the immediate risks of coronavirus. But this reset presents an opportunity to pave the way for future generations to grow up in a sustainability era.
To move beyond fossil fuels and into a world with low-carbon food production, where air pollution is even lower than it is during lockdown, where water quality is better than it is today, where resources and products are designed for multiple rather than single use, and where ecosystems are restored, storing carbon, and improving biodiversity.
As we rebuild and redesign society, we get to choose the future we want to live in. Through lessons learned from this pandemic, imagine the new golden age of sustainability we could build over the next decade.
• Jacob Anderson is the programme manager at BLAKE and is a geologist undertaking his PhD at the University of Otago. He is the host of Anderson's Odyssey – a podcast available on Spotify and Apple podcasts and on YouTube.