Covid-19 economic rescue plans to deal with the impact of the coronavirus must be green, say environmentalists. A growing chorus of environmental campaigners concerned that hasty measures will lock the world into a high-carbon future urged governments to tie any bailouts to aviation and cruise industries to requirements for climate action.
“Governments need to put huge amounts of money into trying to sustain jobs and livelihoods,” said Mary Robinson, a former Irish president and UN high commissioner for human rights, who served twice as UN climate envoy. “But they must do it with a very strong green emphasis. The threat from climate change is as real as the threat from Covid-19, though it seems far away.”
“Money has poured into the fossil fuel industry since the Paris agreement [of 2015],” she said. “That can’t continue.”
The changes brought about in societies worldwide while dealing with Covid-19 would also show people that the changes necessary to achieve a low-carbon future were much less drastic and far more palatable, she said. As far as the climate was concerned, “we must not go back to bad habits afterwards,” she said. “It will be easier to persuade people, as we have had to change so dramatically because of this threat.”
As normal life becomes impossible across Europe, large parts of the US, and already in many parts of East Asia, trillions of dollars’ economic plans in public money are being rolled out to stop the immediate collapse of some severely affected businesses, like airlines and tourism. It is also required to protect the incomes of workers in danger of redundancy.
The campaigners and experts fear that as public health and the immediate welfare of workers involved in the crisis are paramount if the longer-term packages are not designed with utmost attention, it will only entrench fossil fuel dependence across the global economy.
Governments are drawing up stimulus plans to counter the economic damage from coronavirus,
said FatihBirol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency. “These stimulus packages offer an excellent opportunity to ensure that the essential task of building a secure and sustainable energy future doesn’t get lost amid the flurry of immediate priorities.”
Similar to the period after the 2008 crash, the Bank of England is resuming its quantitative easing program of buying up assets to create liquidity in the financial system. However, the concern is that the program has been earlier used to buy bonds from fossil fuel companies, including Shell, BP, and Total.
In some areas like Eastern Europe and Asia, there have been calls to ignore climate concerns and pour stimulus money into existing high-carbon businesses and fossil fuels instead of seeking a balance with a longer-term view of curbing the emissions.
John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace UK, said governments should act urgently to protect people’s livelihoods, but without directing the money to support ailing sectors whose future was already threatened by the climate crisis in long-term.
“Decisions are being made now about whether to spend billions rescuing airlines, cruise ships, the oil and gas industry, among many others,” he said. “Bailing out the shareholders of dirty industries to continue business as usual rather than protecting workers and their families means we would have learned nothing from the bank bailout during the financial crisis.”
The long-talked matter “just transition” to enable workers to move away from fossil fuel-dependent jobs to skilled jobs with long-term low-carbon prospects is compatible with tackling the coronavirus too, argue green campaigners. But only if governments resist calls to downgrade environmental aims to address the new crisis.
“Diluting or doing away with environmental regulations to get a quick economic hit, as China and Poland are suggesting, would be misplaced – out of the frying pan, into the fire, even if the fire seems a few years away,” said Shaun Spiers, the executive director of the Green Alliance thinktank. “It is striking that the ruling party in South Korea has not let coronavirus deter it from proposing a green new deal election manifesto. But I would expect the UK to prioritise the immediate economic impact while also applying a climate lens and thinking about the longer term.”
In the US, Donald Trump’s hostility to climate science and wooing of fossil fuel industries is a major concern for campaigners that will skew the packages for economic rescue in harmful ways. The planned bailout for airlines and the request of the cruise industry for cash are an immediate worry.
“Given that airlines produce a very large and growing amount of climate pollution, any financial assistance should include requirements that these companies take action to reduce their emissions,” said Annie Petsonk of the US-based Environmental Defense Fund. “The cruise industry, which has also requested billions in aid, has serious environmental impacts as well, and should meet new standards in exchange for government funding.”
She said that in return for public money, companies should make firm carbon commitments. “[That] would be a major step in the fight against climate change. Taxpayers, many of whom are now struggling financially, have the right to expect responsible behavior in exchange for bailouts. They should not be funding private businesses only to see them create more costs for the public – in the form of climate impacts – in the future.”
Experts think that the vital point is the lessons from the stimulus following the financial crisis more than a decade ago that are learned. At that time, also, global greenhouse gas emissions paused as the crisis hit. However, after the immediate impact, emissions began their steady rise again and have continued to do so since, partly because of the huge amounts of public money not used to set the world on a green path.
“Given the state will never again play such a powerful role in our economy, and more broadly the global economy, if there was ever a time to join the dots between responding to the health emergency and the climate and nature emergency then this is it,” said Sauven.
“The worst case would be that you haven’t used this awful crisis to reorientate the economy to achieve a much better outcome for people and the environment globally.”