While the glow from the embers of this historic year remain visible, the fire of 2020 is now truly dying – not a moment too soon for many, no doubt. Nevertheless, it would be an opportunity missed not to reflect on the lessons from the year, no matter how brutal many are.
The first, surely, is that humanity’s relationship with nature is unsustainable. Unless some fundamental changes are made to that relationship, the prospect of future pandemics is all too real, as is the risk of a climate catastrophe.
The good news is that, despite the Glasgow climate conference being delayed, 2020 turned out to be an important year on the climate front. Several countries, most notably China, made net-zero announcements, various oil majors outlined transitions away from fossil fuels and even Eskom set an aspiration to be net-zero by 2050. The upcoming change in administration in the US is also climate positive, with President-elect Joe Biden not only committing to rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement but including a $1.7-trillion clean-energy pledge in his election manifesto.
The bad news is that, from Australia to the Amazon and from Ethiopia to California, climate-related disasters intensified. It is also clear that, despite the rise of renewables and encouraging plans in several countries to ban the sale of internal combustion engine cars from 2030, the world is still not on a 2 ºC pathway, let alone the 1.5 ºC one required to avert the worst.
The second lesson from this traumatic year is that leadership counts in a crisis. Those countries that were in the fortunate position of being led by thoughtful and informed leaders were able to navigate the pandemic more effectively than those led by leaders focused narrowly on political point-scoring or who were impervious to sound, science-led advice.
Indeed, the third critical lesson from 2020 is that science matters, but not all scientific commentary is equal.
Practising epidemiologists offered clear and coherent advice from the start. Had this advice been taken, the level of infections and deaths would have been far lower and economic activity would have resumed far more quickly than it did.
The dark side of an always-on culture, however, is that there is also ample opportunity to spread blatant falsehoods and misinformation. Some of the misguided messaging was not meant to be malicious, but was still destructive and distracting. In too many instances, peer-reviewed research and evidence-based solutions were held up as equivalent to the ‘gut feelings’ and ‘back of cigarette box’ calculations of people who may well have studied medicine 20 to 30 years ago, but who dismally failed to keep up with developments ever since.
The final lesson is that, to build a healthier and more economically inclusive society, governments need to collaborate far more with business and civil society to agree on more fit-for-purpose and resilient development pathways and to commit to financing and implementing them.
That surely is the real postpandemic challenge and priority.