The COVID-19 crisis has shown how deep inequalities make society as a whole more vulnerable – providing important lessons for building resilience in an era of climate change. The people most exposed to the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis are largely those who are also most vulnerable to climate change impacts: lower-income and disadvantaged people, including women, minorities and marginalized ethnic groups, the elderly, informal workers and those in essential but undervalued jobs on the front lines.
With millions infected, more than half the global workforce at immediate risk of losing their livelihoods and the number of people facing acute hunger potentially doubling to 265 million, the COVID crisis is worsening inequality, with dire consequences for our societies and economies. Often, the crisis is most acute for the poor in developing countries where livelihoods are precarious.
Last year, a global wave of protests highlighted the urgent need to address climate action and social justice – and the recent protests against racism in the U.S. and Europe have also underscored fundamental key issues of equity. As countries launch efforts to reboot their economies, they have a critical opportunity to pursue a course that is more sustainable and resilient – and to achieve this shift, they must also put tackling inequality at its core.
Here are four issues at the center of the COVID crisis for which recovery strategies can address inequality, the economic crisis and climate change all at once. While these issues by no means reflect all of the ways in which responses to climate change and inequality intersect, they are central to the challenges that the COVID-19 crisis has laid bare.
1. Social Protection Policies
At least half the world’s countries have included social protection policies to ensure basic income security and access to health care as part of their response to the COVID crisis. This includes adopting new social protection programs or expanding existing ones to provide access for excluded groups, such as informal workers, self-employed workers, migrants and the homeless. These measures are particularly essential for the 2 billion informal workers who lost 60% of their wages in the first month of the crisis. Many of these workers are women; for example, in India 90% of working women are in the informal sector.
Countries should build on these policies to develop or strengthen universal social protection systems that enhance resilience to shocks, including climate change. A range of social protection measures – cash transfers, accessible insurance and employment guarantee schemes, for example – can also help make communities more resilient to climate change, especially for the poorest groups such as smallholder farmers.
2. Sustainable and Decent Jobs
In the second quarter of 2020, the world lost the equivalent of about 400 million full-time jobs, a devastating drop that has damaged the livelihoods of families everywhere. Investment in green, resilient activities like sustainable infrastructure, clean energy and ecosystem restoration is fundamental to sustainably bring jobs back in the wake of the pandemic. The International Energy Agency has proposed a Sustainable Recovery Plan for energy sectors that would save or create 9 million jobs a year over the next three years.
These recovery efforts should especially target jobs toward those who are poorest and most vulnerable. In India, for example, where 400 million workers in the informal economy are at risk of falling deeper into poverty, recovery can focus on opportunities in green sectors – 11 million jobs in renewable energy alone – but will also need to focus on providing poor workers with effective access to training programs. Expanding renewable energy also helps provide poor communities, especially rural ones, with energy access and essential services such as health care, water and sanitation.
Recovery plans can also be designed to support just transition strategies for workers and communities dependent on sectors that need to shrink or adapt to reduce their carbon footprint and climate vulnerability. Job creation, income support, re-skilling programs and economic diversification initiatives should be integrated into recovery plans, including in countries being hit by the recent oil price shock.
This crisis has also shown the importance of improving wages, protection and working conditions in jobs that are critical to sustaining society and building resilience – including in sectors such as health care, where workers play a key role in responding to climate impacts. Some governments, including those in France and Ontario, Canada, have granted health and social workers bonuses during the COVID crisis. However, many essential workers worldwide – especially women and minorities – have received limited financial compensation and health protections. Longer-term measures are necessary to support these workers and address gender equity, since women account for 70% of the 136 million people working in health and social work. As these workers play key economic and social roles, leaving them behind would undermine our societies as a whole.
3. Agriculture and Rural Livelihoods
The COVID crisis has worsened food insecurity globally, squeezing many smallholder farmers and revealing just how vulnerable existing food systems are. In many countries, restricted imports of critical food supplies and a lack of workers to harvest crops have led to food shortages. In some African and Asian countries, farmers have been unable to get their products to market.
These challenges to production and supply chains need to be addressed as extreme weather and other climate change impacts become more severe. To that end, recovery plans can channel investment in sustainable, resilient agriculture and food supply chains at the local, national and regional levels. Well-designed, climate-smart and agroecological practices are essential to strengthen food security, adapt to and prevent the worst impacts of climate change, and reduce ecosystem loss that is exacerbating the risks of diseases carried by animals that can infect humans, like COVID-19. Restoring 160 million hectares of degraded agricultural land could boost smallholder farmers’ incomes in developing countries by $35-40 billion per year while providing additional food for nearly 200 million people. Forest restoration can also help reduce carbon emissions while boosting rural livelihoods and jobs, including in high-income countries.
4. Sustainable, Affordable, Accessible Transport
COVID-related lockdowns have caused a steep drop in the use of public transport, with significant reductions in revenue placing a severe strain on public transit agencies. If public transport is unavailable to many after the coronavirus crisis subsides, it would make unequal access to mobility even worse while hampering efforts to cut transport emissions and air pollution.
As the recovery takes shape, boosting public and sustainable transport options is essential to advance public health and climate objectives while also addressing inequality and creating job intensive services. Nearly half the world’s urban residents – including 82% in sub-Saharan Africa – lack convenient access to public transport. Recovery plans provide major opportunities to invest in equitable and sustainable mobility such as electric buses, bus rapid transit systems and better infrastructure for cycling and walking. For example, many cities have already extended bike paths during the crisis to ensure social distancing; these efforts can be continued and expanded.
The COVID crisis has led to a significant increase in the use of virtual communications and teleworking, which can be part of broader strategies to reduce emissions, especially by reducing demand for carbon-based transport. However, the pandemic has also exposed the digital divide across economic groups and geographies as a new frontier of inequality, which has been most glaringly seen with inadequate schooling for lower-income families. In both developed and developing countries, building out broadband and internet services to those with inadequate access should be part of COVID recovery strategies that can help slash emissions, generate jobs, and reduce economic and social inequality.
People-Oriented Investment and Governance
The challenges ahead – but also the opportunities – are significant. Beyond the four areas highlighted here, there are also important intersections between COVID-19, climate change and inequality involving other issues such as air pollution, urban housing and planning, and access to clean water.
As the recovery takes shape, significant investments in people and long-term sustainability will be needed from all levels of government and a range of institutions, including national and multilateral development banks and the IMF. More financial resources are essential, and we’ll have to look at equitable fiscal approaches, including equitable fossil fuel subsidy reform and carbon pricing, fair domestic taxation, and debt relief or cancellation for vulnerable countries.
As recovery plans are developed, public participation will also be essential. Building on efforts to develop citizens’ assemblies on climate policies, we will need models of citizens’ participation – with a focus on voice and agency of vulnerable communities – to make governance for climate action responsive to public demand for greater democracy and system change.
As we emerge from the COVID crisis, we will need broad support for a revitalization of our economies and societies built on a sustainable, equitable vision for our future. That will be critical to equip our world to take on the climate and inequality challenges that lie ahead.
David Waskow is the Director of the International Climate Initiative at World Resources Institute.
Mathilde Bouyé heads the Climate-SDG team within the WRI Global Climate Program.