This year was supposed to make a difference in the international fight against climate change.
But the spreading of the coronavirus and the related economic slowdown might overshadow climate change as a priority – for both decision-makers and citizens.
Even worse, the disease could be used to postpone structural reforms needed to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 – the long-term goal of the Green Deal.
Earlier this week, the prime minister of the Czech Republic, Andrej Babiš, said that “Europe should forget about the Green Deal now and focus on the coronavirus instead”.
However, according to the European Commission, the recently-announced climate law was, in fact, designed to avoid that climate action is side-lined by more pressing and immediate challenges.
“As we said when we presented the Green Deal, in the long-term the cost of non-action is higher than the cost of action – in purely economic terms and in terms of our health and that of our planet,” a commission spokesperson told EUobserver on Thursday (19 March).
So far, two pillars of the Green Deal – the biodiversity and farm-to-fork strategies – have been potsponed.
Meanwhile on Thursday (19 March) British foreign minister Dominic Raab said the UN climate talks (COP26) scheduled for Glasgow, Scotland, for November, will go ahead as planned, although the event was “under closed review”.
“We would, of course, want it to go ahead but I can’t give you any guarantee on that,” he said.
Speaking at a conference in New York, also on Thursday, UN secretary-general António Guterres said: “In managing this crisis we have a unique opportunity, we can seek a recovery towards a more sustainable and inclusive path.”
Yet, the pandemic has created a major economic shock in Europe that is likely to slow down international negotiations to fight climate change.
Public and private debt problems
“The rise in public deficit, but also company debt, might reduce funding and investments in climate change mitigation and adaptation,” said Thorfinn Stainforth, a policy analyst at the think tank Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP).
For instance, it took more than five years for levels of green investments to recover after the 2008 crisis.
However, the macroeconomic response to the crisis could be turned into an opportunity to launch a ‘Green Marshall Plan’ that accelerates the transition towards carbon neutrality while supporting the return to prosperity, Stainforth added.
The commission presented its Green Deal investment plan at the start of this year aiming to mobilise at least one trillion euros of investments in the next decade.
“But the need to support these investments is as urgent as ever, as they will also help to generate economic growth and jobs as we come out of the current crisis,” a commission spokesperson warned.
According to the spokesperson of NGO Greenpeace, John Hyland, “public health and planetary health are intimately connected and must be addressed together”.
“To improve long-term public and planetary health, we need to invest in a just transition away from fossil fuel dependency, to protect forests, change farming practices and radically redesign our cities,” he added.
“A failure to do so would condemn future generations to devastating consequences. As they’ve done in relation to the COVID-19 crisis, governments and the EU would do well to listen to the scientists,” he also said.
Similarly, the CEO of the European Climate Foundation, Laurence Tubiana, said on Wednesday that “we should try to avoid going back to business as usual” since this crisis offers a reflection on the different style of life that people want to have.
However, innovation will be needed to maintain the discussion going on, said Tubiana.
‘Can’t go back to business-as-usual’
Likewise, the coronavirus outbreak has shown the capacity of citizens and policy-makers to respond to a crisis, as well as the ability of cooperation and solidarity in the international community.
“The coronavirus crisis demonstrates that governments can and should use strong measures if they want to induce changes in individual and collective behaviours for the common good,” said Stainforth, who believes that this assertive approach could also be applied to tackle climate change.
While it is expected that air quality will improve dramatically across Europe thanks to the reduction of transport and industry production, the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) warned earlier this week that those living in polluted cities are more at risk from coronavirus.
“The air may be clearing in Italy, but the damage has already been done to human health and people’s ability to fight off infection,” the EPHA acting secretary-general Sascha Marschang warned.
Meanwhile, the reduction of water traffic in Venice has improved the quality of the water in its famous canals – but not quite as much.
The reduction in consumption and transportation linked to lockdown measures and restrictions of movement is also likely to result in an overall reduction in household carbon footprints.
And, greenhouse gas emissions have sharply decreased in China and certain European regions.
However, this might not last long if stakeholders return to business-as-usual once this crisis is over.