No more excuses

How Covid-19 might fundamentally shift our debate about climate action

March 26, 2020

»Freie Fahrt für freie Bürger.«

»Free passage for free citizens.«

Coined in the 1970s by the German General Automobile Club (ADAC), this slogan summarizes a decade-long debate in the German public about whether or not the government should introduce a speed limit on German highways or not. The core argument of the opponents: A speed limit would impose unacceptable restrictions on the freedom of German citizens.

The German debate about a speed limit is just one of many examples where freedom is put forward as an argument against stricter environmental and social regulations. At times, it is the freedom of the individual, like in the case of the speed limit or the Veggie day. At other times, it is the freedom of the infamous “invisible hand” of the market that needs to be defended, like in the debate about a minimum salary in Switzerland.

Discussions about freedom are also at the center of a very recent development: the Covid-19 pandemic. In an effort to slow down the spreading of the virus and to “flatten the curve”, governments around the world are currently curbing our freedom at an unprecedented scale. At the individual level, we are restricted in our freedom to move, in our freedom of assembly, and even in our freedom of having direct social contact. At the economic level, restaurants, businesses and industries are forced to shut down. Labor force from neighboring countries is not allowed to enter Germany to help in the agricultural sector.

Why is it that governments are now intervening so heavily into our most fundamental freedom, the exact same freedom they had been defending so vigorously for decades against calls for stricter environmental regulations?

Well, clearly Covid-19 kills more people than environmental pollution. Wait – does it? Up to March 25, 2020, Covid-19 has caused around 21.000 deaths worldwide, around 14.000 of which in Europe. According to the European Environmental Agency, ambient air pollution by PM2.5, NO2 and O3 has caused 15.100 premature deaths in Europe in 2016. This figure may, however, be much too conservative. A more recent study published in the European Heart Journal estimated that air pollution causes 800.000 extra deaths a year in Europe and 8.8 million worldwide. 800.000 premature deaths. Every year. While we do not yet know how Covid-19 will evolve, these figures show that air pollution is as dangerous, if not more dangerous than Covid-19 – and it is just one among various health-related environmental problems.

Ok, it might not be more deadly, but we have a moral obligation to do our best to protect the elderly and other risk groups from Covid-19! This is very true – but it is just as true for different environmental problems. The elderly are more vulnerable to heat waves and air pollution than young people. If we have a moral obligation to protect the elderly from Covid-19, we also have a moral obligation to limit air pollution and global warming to protect them.

Well, but still we need to act so drastically now because every day we remain passive will directly increase the death toll and the effects of Covid-19 on our society:

Corona curves

Also very true – but again, the same holds true for environmental problems. Let us take the example of climate change mitigation. The IPCC Special Report “Global Warming of 1.5 °C” outlines different pathways allowing us to stay below 1.5 °C. The message is clear: the earlier we start, the less severely we have to cut emissions.


Our way of dealing with the environment causes at least as many deaths as Covid-19. Like Covid-19, it disproportionally affects vulnerable population groups – be it the elderly, communities in the Global South or future generations. In post-Corona times, there will be no more reason to justify why we do not take as drastic measures to protect the environment as we do now to limit the spreading of Covid-19.

Freedom has a high value in our society. With freedom, however, comes responsibility – responsibility for the consequences of our actions. Currently, governments ask us to act responsibly and in solidarity with those most at risk of dying from Covid-19. In just the same way, we ask governments to act responsibly and in solidarity with those most at risk of climate change effects – communities in the Global South and our children.

The next time we debate about a speed limit or higher taxes on kerosene and somebody says: “This is an interesting proposal, but I’m sorry – we cannot restrict the freedom of our citizens”, we will stand up and say: “You remember, back in 2020…”

There are no more excuses.

Act now.