COVID-19 vs. Climate: Australia’s Scorecard

Written by Belinda Xie, Prof. Ben Newell & Prof. Jeremy Moss.

The beginning of 2021 is a time to reflect on 2020’s highs and lows, its successes and failures. In Australia’s case, the comparison of our response to COVID-19 and climate change could not be starker. In many ways the pandemic and climate change are similar: both cause loss of life, livelihoods, and widespread disruption to the economy.

World leader or laggard? Australia has led the world in its response to COVID and ranked:

  • 7th out of 53 countries on the “Covid Resilience Ranking” [i], a measure of metrics including mortality rate, health-care system capacity, and citizens’ freedom of movement.
  • 4th out of 36 countries on the “COVID-19 Global Response Index” [ii] which looks at public health directives, financial stimulus, and fact-based public communication.
  • Several honourable mentions for flattening the curve from medical and epidemiological experts at home [iii] and internationally [iv].


Contrast this with Australia’s performance on climate change which:

  • Ranked 53rd out of 58 countries on The Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) [v] meriting the admonishment that “…the newly elected government has continued to worsen performance at both national and international levels” (p. 16).
  • Refused to commit to a net zero emissions target by 2050 and maintained the 26-8% target against a 2005 baseline, while the EU agreed to cut emissions by 55% by 2030 and the UK by 68% against a 1990 baseline.
  • Rose to 3rd largest exporter of CO2 emissions via coal and gas exports, thereby keeping company with a handful of ‘bad actors’ in meeting Paris commitments (including Saudi Arabia, Russia, Brazil) [vi].

Economic costs and opportunities


How has COVID-19 impacted the national pocket-book?

  • Recession hit after the June 2020 quarter with a whopping 7% decline in GDP.
  • But September had the recession already in the rear-view mirror with a 3.3% growth in GDP. This turnaround was attributable in no small part to the billions of dollars in economic stimulus provided by Governments and the Reserve Bank, as well as easing of lockdown restrictions [vii].


Unfortunately, climate change will not only involve short-term costs. In the next 30 years, cumulative losses from climate change are estimated to:

  • top out at $2.7 trillion [viii],
  • including $611 billion from loss and damage to property,
  • $368 billion from biodiversity and human health losses, and
  • $211 billion from agricultural and labour productivity losses.
  • The 2019-2020 bushfire season alone has been estimated to cost an additional $100 billion [ix].

Loss of human life

Many have paid the ultimate cost of COVID-19. So far, Australia has reported a total of 909 deaths from COVID-19 [xi]. These deaths can be directly attributed to the virus; climate-related deaths are harder to document.

But we can populate the score-card with some verified figures, including:

  • 33 casualties, including nine firefighters in the 2019-20 Black Summer.
  • Up to 429 premature deaths from bushfire smoke [xii].
  • 800 premature deaths from air pollution from coal-burning power stations in Australia [xiii].
  • 279 premature deaths every year in NSW alone from the state’s coal-fired power stations. This means NSW’s coal-fired power stations will cause 3429 premature deaths over the planned lifetime of the plants [xiv].

That’s nearly as many premature climate-related deaths each year as COVID-19 has caused in total so far.

Why the discrepancy?

What can we learn from these wildly divergent scorecards? How can we use the successes of our COVID-19 response to join in with the global community in taking ambitious and effective climate action?


Significant government support

Individuals should not and cannot bear responsibility for complex, global problems. The Australian Government stepped in with a $17.6 billion economic support package, added $2.4 billion for health care, and secured access to COVID-19 vaccines.

On combatting climate change, the Government could do vastly more to encourage investment in renewable energy, transition workers out of fossil fuel industries, and fund climate change adaptation and mitigation resources.

Other countries are already acting to ensure that there is a ‘green recovery’ from both COVID and climate. The EU’s E$1.85 trillion recovery plan includes substantial funds for a climate transition [xv].

In contrast, Australia’s government has proposed a ‘gas led recovery’ and approved three new fossil fuel projects alone in October 2020 – Vickery coal mine extension, Olive Downs and the Narrabri Gas Project.


Evidence-based public communication

Health professionals were prominent at government press conferences, and their advice was pivotal in shaping government policy on the COVID-19 response.

In contrast, the link between human activity and climate change continues to be publicly debated by Australian MPs and ministers. We know that such misinformation muddies the waters, impairs understanding, and impacts support [xvi] [xvii]. Government officials must commit to emphasising correct information – and follow the expert advice that has consistently – for decades – advocated significant reductions in emissions [xviii].


Not all up to the government

Strategies work best if they are formally legislated and also enjoy broad public support. Social norms have been powerful in sustaining COVID-safe behaviour. Changing expectations of how to behave, and of how we expect others to behave, have helped to increase concern and compliance. In addition, ‘sub-state’ actors like state governments and health bodies helped with the heavy lifting of the hands-on public health response.

This was partly a result of who controls the health systems, yet the lesson is clear: if the Federal government is not doing enough on climate change, other actors – states, NGO’s, communities – can fill the breach.



Belinda Xie
Scientia PhD Candidate
UNSW School of Psychology
UNSW Sydney

Professor Ben Newell
Deputy Head of School of Psychology
UNSW School of Psychology
UNSW Sydney

Professor Jeremy Moss
Director of the Practical Justice Initiative
UNSW Sydney