Lila Warszawski is a research analyst at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research. Starting out as an astrophysicist, Lila has now spent almost 10 years contributing to research on the global impacts of climate change.

Johan Rockström is Director of Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Professor in Earth System Science at the University of Potsdam. He led the development of the Planetary Boundaries framework for human development in the current era of rapid global change.

 “Without managing the global commons – from our oceans and air to healthy forests and biodiversity – planetary and universal human health will be unattainable goals.”

2020 was billed as the “super year” in which the international community, through an historic line-up of climate, biodiversity and sustainable development meetings, had great plans to take the reins of the Anthropocene. Crushed by the coronavirus pandemic, policy, business, civil society and science have been forced to hit the pause button on planet-saving initiatives. Paradoxically, an unexpected goal of the “super year” has been achieved: bending the global curve of greenhouse gas emissions, with an estimated 5-6% reduction compared to 2019. This is not far from the science-based target of cutting global emissions by half each decade from 2020 onwards. 

Should we be celebrating? No. Putting a brake on the economy, triggering massive job losses and human misery, cannot be the path towards sustainable development and to reach climate targets. But the pandemic does remind us of the scale of transformation we are talking about if we are going to succeed in continuing human development within the safe operating space of a stable and resilient planet. In fact, if the pandemic only drives home one point, it is that without managing the global commons – from our oceans and air to healthy forests and biodiversity – planetary and universal human health will be unattainable goals. 

The interconnectedness of human and planetary health is well established today through the Planetary Health Initiative and other research. The links, for example, between COVID-19 and the climate and nature crises are real. We know that the human degradation of natural habitats, for agriculture and urban expansion, increases the risk of spill-over of animal viruses to humans, reinforced by global warming and pollution. If we want to reduce risks of future pandemics, we must protect natural ecosystems and stabilize the climate. In 2019, just six months before the pandemic, scientists laid out the evidence for declaring a state of planetary emergency, due to the rising risks of triggering irreversible changes to the life-support systems on Earth. 

And, while COVID-19 arrived, climate change didn’t depart. The science is ever clearer that not only is the worst still to come, but that it could come even sooner and harder than we thought. A recent study predicts that just 30 years from now up to 3 billion people will reside in “virtually unliveable” hot regions, akin to conditions in the Sahara desert, effectively leaving behind the environmental safety that has sustained human civilization over the past 11,000 years. 

COVID-19 came as an abrupt shock, yet it is a manifestation of the unsustainable, hyper-connected globalised world of the Anthropocene. We can learn from this abrupt shock by acting more decisively on the creeping threat of shocks from ecosystem collapse and climate instability. In 2021 we need to pick up where the virus left us, and the mobilisation for a resilient post-COVID-19 recovery gives hope. The pandemic has written us a prescription for a paradigm shift to govern the whole system on which our health and prosperity depends. It’s a prescription we should make sure that we take. 

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Read the Living Planet Report 2020