The coronavirus crisis does not make the environmental emergency redundant or any less urgent.
Andrej Babiš, the Czech prime minister and populist billionaire, has seized on the coronavirus pandemic to try to sink the EU’s flagship European Green Deal.
“Europe should forget about the Green Deal now and focus on the coronavirus instead," he said. "Now that the epidemic is nearly over in China, the country is once again the biggest producer of medical material and the entire planet is going shopping in China … We really have a lot to learn from China.”
While Babiš is not alone in seeing the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to bash the Green Deal, more responsible leaders are already looking at how to restart the economy in a way that protects public health, safeguards people’s welfare and ensures a sustainable future for all.
Leading environmentalists are clear that the world’s first priority is to take on the coronavirus and save lives, but that this can and must be done in conjunction with the European Green Deal.
Jeremy Wates, the European Environmental Bureau’s (EEB's) secretary general, said: “COVID-19 is a public health emergency. Europe and the world must act quickly and decisively to save lives and to flatten the curve of this pandemic, while protecting people’s welfare and livelihoods."
This includes Europe taking up its duties as a responsible global citizen when it is needed.
Patrizia Heidegger, EEB’s director of global policies and sustainability, said: “While this is turning into a massive crisis for us, we are still in a privileged situation with social protections, good health systems. Poor countries are not so fortunate. There will be a greater need for global solidarity and partnership. ”
Wates added: “The coronavirus crisis does not make the environmental emergency redundant or any less urgent. It’s important that government interventions support long-term climate and environmental gains are not limited to just providing short-term economic pain relief. And returning to business as usual is not an option."
The Guardian newspaper published an editorial that echoed the stance of environmental groups: “Difficult and almost impossibly daunting as it may seem, the world is faced with not one but two existential crises and two races against time: the coronavirus and the climate emergency. Dealing with both is going to require extraordinary focus and resolution.”
What’s needed, Wates says, is a “greenprint” for a post-corona economy – and the EU’s Green Deal could provide a foundation.
Leading European Commission officials have been clear about their support for the Green Deal this week: “The Green Deal is not over … We should deliver and we should work on greener solutions,” insisted Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal market commissioner.
Frans Timmermans, European Commission executive vice-president for the Green Deal, tweeted: “We are rightfully making many sacrifices right now, and staying inside to keep people safe.” Timmermans is currently in self-imposed quarantine after having met an official who had tested positive for the coronavirus.
He continued: “But when the better days come – and they will – we will be more determined than ever to protect our people and planet and enjoy the nature around us."
Moreover, the coronavirus crisis fund, worth €37 billion, will be guided by the Green Deal, Timmermans’ team insists. “We should… align everything that we have, including the MFF [Multiannual Financial Framework] into one objective, which is to make the Green Deal happen,” said Diederik Samsom, Timmermans’ head of cabinet.
Civil society is clear in its message that public rescue packages and bailouts should, unlike during the financial crisis of 2007/8, be targeted at aiding people and protecting the environment.
A spokesperson for Greenpeace said: “The European Commission must invest in people and avoid bailing out polluting industries. Instead, it must invest public money in a new start and help us transform our society into one where we truly take care of one another and the only planet Earth we’ve got.”
One highly polluting industry that has been lobbying for massive bailouts at the national levels on both sides of the Atlantic and in Brussels is the civil aviation sector.
Magdalena Heuwieser, a climate justice activist and co-founder of the Stay Grounded campaign, said on behalf of the coalition: “Let’s not bail out shareholders and executives who have spent years lining their pockets, while hundreds of thousands of small businesses, owner-operated restaurants and creative artists go out of business.
"It is unacceptable that the industry’s profits are privatised, while it expects its losses to be covered by the public.”
Heuwieser urged European leaders to take advantage of “this unintended pause in air travel to rethink what we can do to stop far worse consequences from climate collapse, and flying’s contribution to it”.
This process of rethought and reinvention has been in motion for some time.
Environmentalists have long been calling for an end to the tax exemption on kerosene which airlines currently enjoy, and Stay Grounded has organised a petition to demand this.
Taxing kerosene would lead to an 11 percent reduction in aviation emissions (the equivalent of taking 8 million cars off the roads), would have no net impact on jobs or the economy, and would deliver €27 billion in desperately needed tax revenues, a leaked European Commission study found.
Campaigners have long been calling for subsidies to the aviation sector, including massive tax breaks and free emissions trading credits, to end, and for short-haul flights to be seriously curbed and replaced by more sustainable modes such as trains. Today presents a unique opportunity to invest in and promote more sustainable alternatives.
While the European Commission is still pushing forward with the Green Deal, the need to confront the spread of the coronavirus has inevitably delayed some initiatives, such as the biodiversity and farm-to-fork strategies.
Meanwhile, species, habitat and biodiversity loss continue at an alarming pace. Not only is this bad news for nature, it is also bad news for humanity, because nature provides us with priceless and irreplaceable services.
“Industrial agriculture is the world’s leading driver of ecosystem degradation,” notes a recent report ‘Who is paying the bill: (Negative) impacts of EU policies and practices in the world’, which was produced by half a dozen NGOs, including the EEB, under SDG Watch Europe.
The report continues: “Unhealthy and unsustainably produced food poses a global risk to people and the planet, not to speak of hunger which remains an ongoing injustice despite the expansion of EU food production and EU agro-food exports.”
In addition, experts have linked the increasing crossover of viruses and other infections from animals to humans to habitat and biodiversity loss.
Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at University College London explained to the Guardian: “We are researching how species in degraded habitats are likely to carry more viruses which can infect humans.
"Simpler systems get an amplification effect. Destroy landscapes, and the species you are left with are the ones humans get the diseases from.”
This makes the food we eat a big part of the problem and the solution. One of the most promising approaches to farming is known as agroecology, an approach that relies on, and maximises, ecological processes to support production systems.
It is a holistic set of techniques which combine agronomy, ecology and biology to produce food in harmony with nature, not against it (find out more here).
The EEB supports reforming the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to support agroecology and other sustainable farming and nature conservation practices, such as rewilding.
Patrick ten Brink, the EEB’s director of EU policy, said: “European governments have demonstrated enormous concern about citizen wellbeing and have placed it above all else during the coronavirus crisis." Brink is referring to the EU’s decision to relax budgetary discipline rules under the Stability and Growth Pact.
He continued: “This flexibility is needed also to help implement the European Green Deal, drive the transition to a climate neutral, circular economy based zero pollution world which will help with jobs, and invest in the resilience of our society, economy and planet.”
Khaled Diab is a senior communications officer, with a particular focus on the sustainable development goals, economic transition and environmental justice. Khaled is a veteran journalist with over 20 years of experience gathered in Europe and the Middle East. He is also the author of two books.
This article was first published by META, from the European Environmental Bureau.