COVID-19 means a cleaner environment - for now - so let’s not drop the focus on climate change

Europe's World

Climate & Energy

Picture of Julien Tate-Smith
Julien Tate-Smith

Programme Officer at Friends of Europe

Common belief states that COVID-19 is having a positive effect on the environment. This is a flawed perspective. Though the sharp decrease in economic activity indeed translates into a decrease of greenhouse gas emissions, make no mistake that this is but a short-term trend.

EU leaders recently noted the importance of combining sustainable growth with economic recovery, but the time is now to put action to these words.

As countries around the world implement social confinement measures in a bid to beat the coronavirus outbreak, many have flocked to social media to express their astonishment at the visible changes their neighbourhoods have gone through. Cities are seeing a notable drop in their air pollution. Northern Italy saw a clear decrease of its nitrogen dioxide concentrations, as highlighted by the ESA, and the same can be said of other European cities under lockdown.

The return of clean air is most certainly welcome. However, we shouldn’t jump too quickly to conclusions – there is little reason to believe that this change is permanent, and that is for three reasons.

EU officials have hinted at the need to combine COVID-19 recovery with a green transition

First, human activity will almost certainly bounce back. As authorities eventually ease confinement restrictions, many will be eager for a return to normal. International travel is likely to resume with flights whizzing the business community and tourists across the globe, both eager to meet customers and for a get-away after so many weeks of lockdown. Consumption is expected to pick up and, with that, so too will production. The result will inevitably be an increase in emissions from their current levels and the need to find ‘instagrammable’ landscapes elsewhere than in our cities.

In addition, the shutdown of the economy and the devastation it causes may prompt many to believe that the transition to a zero-carbon economy and expected job losses makes climate action undesirable.

Second, government-led economic stimuli are heading in the wrong direction. The sharp halt in the production of wealth due to country-wide lockdowns has put a global recession firmly on the horizon. In a bid to limit long-term damage, officials have launched the largest-ever economic package to bail-out companies and kickstart the economy. Spending rules have been ripped up, with governments across Europe offering credit guarantees worth as much as 15% of GDP, as well as loans, subsidies and bonds.

These measures are certainly substantial to say the least. And the potential is clear. Such considerable investment from public funds will set the economy’s course for the next generation. EU officials have hinted at the need to combine COVID-19 recovery with a green transition. However, current measures lack an effective pathway towards greater sustainability, inclusivity and the development of the circular economy. Paving a way for a return back to ‘business as usual’ is a missed opportunity and will set us back decades.

With a looming economic crisis, the climate emergency is destined to also be put on hold

Third, climate change will probably become a lower priority. As governments scramble to limit the spread of the virus and prioritise a quality-of-care for those in need, all policies unrelated to the immediate impact of the contagion have quite rightly been put on hold. The next challenge will be how to restart our society and make sure those most affected are able to get back on their feet.

Yet, with a looming economic crisis, the climate emergency is destined to also be put on hold. Heightened public deficit matched with the struggles faced by many companies big and small will lead many to consider the consequences of climate change as simple collateral, the lesser of two evils. Officials from Czech Republic and Poland have already raised doubt on their ability to implement the European Green Deal, despite the EU’s response that the long-term cost of inaction on climate change will be far greater.

This crisis has highlighted the fragility of our economies. We find ourselves at a crossroads and the need to make the right choice.

This is a good time to reflect on the direction we want to take after this crisis is over

Human activity will eventually bounce back and with it previously held myths debunked during our stay at home will hopefully endure (e.g. our reliance on business travel). Additionally, public investment can act on the short-term needs of the COVID-19 crisis and the long-term ambitions of a just transition. Let’s make sure this happens. And finally strong environmental policy can remain a priority, notably by endorsing our support for such policies towards European decision-makers

No one wants the world to stop turning. The drastic measures implemented by European authorities are, for the most part, entirely necessary. Nevertheless, this is a good time to reflect on the direction we want to take after this crisis is over, the consequences of which will certainly be felt for generations to come.  

This article draws inspiration from François Gemmene’s thoughts on the topic.

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