The corona crisis: A catalyst for climate action?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Charles Michel, President of the European Council, gives a press conference after a video meeting with EU leaders in Brussels, 26 March 2020. [European Union]

The corona crisis, with the ongoing health crisis and the expected economic crisis, should be used as a catalyst to get the EU on a more sustainable track and accelerate efforts towards climate-neutrality. Greater sustainability is an answer to the crisis, not ‘a nice-to-have’ once it is over, writes Annika Hedberg.

Annika Hedberg is the Head of the Sustainable Prosperity for Europe Programme at the European Policy Centre (EPC), a think tank based in Brussels, Belgium.

While the policy-makers, media and people are currently focused on addressing the corona crisis, the other crisis – the existential climate and wider sustainability crisis – has not disappeared. It continues to cast a great shadow on Europe and the world.

It is essential that the EU does not lose a track of its global commitments and goals, including for climate neutrality, when addressing the ongoing health and the expected economic crisis. Greater sustainability must be a key as the EU shifts focus from immediate response to recovery plans.

Get the economy on a greener track

With travel and traffic heavily reduced, production processes disrupted and people consuming less, we can expect a short-term reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is already evident in China as well as in Europe. The expected economic recession can lead to an even greater reduction in emissions – as seen during the last economic crisis.

However, these reductions are happening for the wrong reasons and are not an answer to the ongoing climate crisis. Previous economic downturns have shown that once economies recover, businesses start producing and people consuming, this can accelerate an increase in emissions.

Thus, the ongoing crisis must be used to advance climate action and get the economy on a more sustainable track. The aim must be to help the continent come out more prepared to address the climate crisis while striving for climate-neutrality that benefits people, business and the planet.

Resist temptation to continue business as usual

With the oil prices crashing, this can increase the short-term incentive to stick with fossil fuels. This could slow down the green transition as, for example, electric vehicles cannot compete with low oil prices. Many stakeholders and sectors may also be calling for relaunching economic growth at any price, even at the cost for climate and the environment.

Amid these developments, it is essential that the policy-makers act responsibly and stay true to the EU’s longer-term commitments. In this context, the EU leaders’ joint statement that the Union remains committed to sustainable growth and the European Commission’s public consultation on raising the EU’s climate target for 2030 provide a welcome signal. Moreover, we need concrete measures.

The investors need these signals to know that over time they will get better returns on their investments, for example, from clean energy than fossil fuel projects. New credits, state aid and stimulus packages must also be aligned with the goals of the European Green Deal. We should see enhanced efforts to support greater circularity, energy efficiency, renewables, and sustainable mobility and agriculture.

EU leaders back ‘green transition’ in pandemic recovery plan

While attention continues to focus on the urgent health aspects of the COVID-19 outbreak, EU leaders have called on the European Commission to start preparing “a comprehensive recovery plan” that integrates green and digital aspects.

One of the EU’s best tools for communicating its goals and leveraging additional investment to support them, is its Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). While the Commission’s original MFF proposal for 2021-27 failed to address the EU’s priorities and needs, the Union needs now an updated proposal that is fully aligned with the Green Deal goals.

As starters, it is time to stop subsidising practices that are evidently harmful to people’s well-being, health, the environment and the climate – livestock farming and fossil fuels being a case in point. Every euro spent should add value for Europeans in the face of the current pressures and help address rather than exacerbate the Union’s challenges.

Support people and business in the transition

European leaders’ priority, in the short-term, is to help people and businesses manage the social and economic repercussions of the corona crisis. Simultaneously, they must be clear about the direction of travel and start to create the conditions for people and business to come out stronger from this crisis with the skills and solutions to face the next one.

The current downshifting could arguably provide a valuable occasion for policy-makers and businesses to guide and enable citizens and consumers to adopt more sustainable and healthy habits, which could last beyond the pandemic. Many may have already discovered that habits with a smaller climate and environmental footprint are possible and can have their merits.

Moreover, the EU must continue to create the conditions for European industry to succeed in developing and deploying solutions for greater sustainability. The demand is already there and may increase even faster than originally envisaged. For example, if it is confirmed that fine particle pollution carries the coronavirus via air, reducing pollution from transport, power and industrial plants, agriculture and heating would become even more urgent. This would further accelerate the demand for solutions to reduce pollution – and simultaneously GHG emissions – in the EU and beyond.

The EU’s exit and recovery from the coronavirus crisis should benefit from and contribute to greening the European economy. Enhancing sustainable prosperity will require lasting changes to how we produce and consume. It will require investments in those skills, sectors, products and services that are needed to address the looming climate and wider sustainability crisis.

Ultimate lesson: where there is a will, there is a way

While far from over, the corona crisis provides already valuable lessons for addressing the existential climate crisis. It reminds us of the importance of solidarity and cooperation in times of crisis. It shows that when needed, politicians can act swiftly. It reveals that action may require substantial and even drastic changes to how we live and work. It shows that by communicating the urgency and rationale for action, people can change their habits and contribute to managing the crisis. At times of emergency, countries, businesses and individuals can stretch themselves beyond what was earlier perceived as unthinkable.

Most importantly, the corona crisis highlights the importance of prevention, mitigation and resilience building. It is in the EU’s interest to do all possible to proactively manage the transition to a competitive, sustainable, climate-neutral economy. This is the time to accelerate – not slow down – the work started.

Emergence from emergency: The case for a holistic economic recovery plan

If you think the coronavirus is scary – it’s only the training day for what will happen if we don’t stop the climate crisis:  Global warming is far more dangerous, write members of The Club of Rome.

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