COVID-19: The essential goal of a greener recovery

July 23, 2020

The mural dedicated to COVID-19 frontliners entitled 'Pandemic Heroes' (painted by Maltese artist Justink's in Zabbar, Malta) was chosen as the best pandemic-inspired international composition by Sustain Europe magazine

IMAGE: Justink's

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.
Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.


Maria Skłodowska-Curie



As COVID-19 spread beyond Wuhan, China and then Asia, in many places the bustle of daily life ground to a slow, quick, partial or complete halt, depending on where you lived. And within a few weeks, social and mainstream media was full of anecdotes about nature reclaiming the planet.


Kangaroos and wild goats ventured into towns, people in Delhi marvelled at the sight of blue sky, hundreds of people reported increased birdsong, more wildlife, and wildflowers erupting in deserted car parks.


But for anyone who cares about the environment, those anecdotes were bittersweet.


The Bittersweet Nature of Lockdown’s Green Benefits


First, it was no real surprise that nature can act so swiftly when given the chance. It’s an opportunist, reacting quickly to any chance to thrive and expand.


Secondly, it was poignant that it took a pandemic to make humans give the rest of life on the planet a chance. The benefit to nature was just a by-product of a new but still self-serving human behaviour—and irritatingly, we realised many of the people working from home and/or using their cars less could have been doing this all along.


And lastly, it was bittersweet because we knew it couldn’t last.


But why can’t these green benefits last? If we can change our daily routine so rapidly and radically to protect ourselves, why haven’t we done it before to protect our planet—and our future?


Writing for, behavioural scientist Dr David Comerford explained both crises have similarities—an escalating probability of disaster, the life disruption necessary to tackle them, the inability of individuals to tackle them effectively alone and an acknowledgement of its urgency by authorities. However, there are also profound differences.

“Coronavirus is a recent, self-evident and rapidly escalating threat. It feels like a shock to the status quo, and the unease that shock engenders [then] motivates action,” he explained.

“Each day brings new evidence of the direct consequences of the outbreak, and these consequences are rapidly moving closer to home.”


On the other hand, he says climate change has been suggested for decades and hard evidence has accumulated only gradually. So it doesn’t cause the same kind of unease.


Yet the consequences of the climate crisis are potentially far more deadly to future generations and just as dangerous to current generations as COVID-19—and the need to tackle it today and not tomorrow if we are to stop it—is just as urgent.


A Life-Changing, Planet-Saving Opportunity We Cannot Miss


We can’t stay in lockdown forever.


While many people could work from home permanently, many could not. They’re only at home because their workplaces, essential for our economy (and our health, as regards medical facilities currently closed for day-to-day healthcare), are shut.


However, by making most of us pause and radically change our daily lives, COVID-19 has given us both the stimulus and opportunity to stop and reconsider how we live our lives or run our businesses. Some businesses have realised that allowing people to work from home and hold meetings online can be good not just for the planet but also their bottom line.


The challenge for us all is to ensure that, in the midst of coping with the pandemic, we don’t miss the life-changing, planet-saving opportunity we’ve been given—and that we keep our new habit of listening to scientists rather than politicians. Our goal has to be a Greener Recovery; fuelled by a determination to ensure that the sacrifices we’re making and losses we’re suffering in the pandemic won’t be in vain--and guided by the lessons we’ve learned about our ability to reduce our emissions.


German companies are on board for a green recovery, with over 60 of them appealing to their Government to “closely link economic policy measures to overcome both the climate crisis and the coronavirus crisis.”


But are governments on board? Despite the US using the pandemic to suspend environmental protections, luckily, there are encouraging signs elsewhere. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the €7 billion government bailout for Air France was dependent on the company becoming “the greenest airline in the world.”


While the suggested sustainable measures, including drastically reducing flights of under 2hr 30mins on routes served by rail, are supposedly non-binding, the company’s director-general, Ben Smith, has said that by 2021, it intends to reduce French domestic flights by 40%. The similarly-sized bail-out of France’s automotive industry is also tied to a green goal to produce over 1 million clean-energy vehicles by 2025.


“We need to not only save the industry, but to transform it,” said President Macron.

Green campaigners are calling for all airline bail-outs to have green conditions and for the introduction of frequent flyer and domestic flyer taxes. Even Heathrow Airport’s chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, believes the UK Government can accelerate the decarbonisation of aviation by helping to scale up new energy sources, such as sustainable aviation fuels--and that any companies receiving bail-outs should commit to net-zero emissions well before 2050.


A growing number of European leaders, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are calling for an acceleration of the €1 trillion European Green Deal measures.


“There are many areas where we could take the elements of the Green Deal and quick start them with massive investments that governments are ready to go for anyway,” says Laurence Tubiana, CEO of the European Climate Foundation.


Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU’s Executive Commission, has proposed a coronavirus recovery fund worth €750bn (£670bn; $825bn), with two-thirds as grants and the other third as loans. Two of the Commission’s suggested payback methods would be good green moves: a carbon tax based on the Emissions Trading Scheme and a tax on non-recycled plastics. However, it remains to be seen if this proposal will be passed in its present form.



President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen discusses the EU's response to Coronavirus


It’s Not Just The Planet We’re Saving


Climate research stations and NASA have reported noticeable drops in emissions in numerous areas during lockdown and predictions of the global emissions decrease in 2020 vary between 5 and 8%. But a greener recovery doesn’t just make sense for the planet, but for our economy, social sustainability and health, too.


Research by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Nicholas Stern indicates that investing in green projects will “create more jobs, deliver higher short-term returns per dollar spend and lead to increased long-term cost savings, by comparison with traditional fiscal stimulus…The COVID-19 crisis could mark a turning point in progress on climate change.”


It’s a view shared even by International Monetary Fund MD Kristalina Georgieva, who says that “a ‘green recovery’ is our bridge to a more resilient future.” The Institutional Investor Group on Climate Change, which collectively manages nearly half of the world’s capital investments, reminded governments to keep the climate crisis in mind in their recovery plans and “avoid the prioritization of risky, short-term, emissions-intensive projects.”


This seems wise, because while crude oil prices dipped below zero recently and oil companies like Exxon and Shell are struggling, “the sun keeps shining and the wind keeps blowing,” as economics and climate writer Mitch Anderson reminds us on the Reasons to Be Cheerful website. He points out that Danish windmill giant Ørsted’s profits are up 33% compared to this time last year, while the Abu Dhabi Power Corporation is planning the largest solar installation in the world, which will provide power for only $1.35/KWh (less than half the price of coal generation).


As for social sustainability, B Bhattacharya, H.J. Zoffer Chair in Sustainability and Ethics at the University of Pittsburgh, says while COVID-19 has been “hailed as the ‘big equalizer’” in reality, we aren’t equally resilient as a society, with socio-economic status strongly related to all sorts of vulnerabilities and “the poor and underprivileged in harm’s way to a disproportionate extent.”

Ludovic Voet, Confederal Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, agrees. “The virus has demonstrated with brutal force how austerity has starved social security and health systems of resources, while employment policies have encouraged precarious work which leaves people even more vulnerable,” he says.


Finally, our health. Researchers from the Division of Sustainable Development at Hamad Bin Khalifa University believe improved air quality due to lockdowns may have saved more lives than the quarantine itself, which sounds ludicrous until you consider the recent study by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the University Medical Center Mainz, which claims that air pollution caused 8.8 million premature deaths in 2015. And a recent Harvard study found that people infected with COVID-19 are more likely to die of the virus if they live in areas with higher air pollution, and many scientists agree that climate change, with its loss of biodiversity and rising temperatures, can create the ideal conditions for illnesses to spread.


The Green Recovery Alliance, a group of 180 ministers, MEPs, CEOs, NGOs and Trade Unions, are suggesting a host of sustainable recovery measures to bring about “improved air quality, population health and quality of life in cities.”


“Let us use the present challenge we are facing together as an opportunity for us all to put the environment at the core of a collective rebound,” they appealed.


So say all of us.



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