No country was duly prepared to tackle the pandemic when it first broke out. As the virus spread quickly everywhere and the number of infected individuals worldwide kept growing exponentially day by day, healthcare systems in developed countries came under enormous strain. The shortage of trained personnel and medical equipment, coupled with the lack of information on the novel virus, made it very hard to manage the situation effectively. After the first wave of contagion, albeit to a varying extent, all countries were left to deal with a tragic death toll from the pandemic and the impending threat of an economic downturn resulting from the lockdown. It was immediately clear that drastic measures were to be taken. While some politicians argued that environmental considerations needed to be paused given the ongoing situation, others envisioned investment plans in which the economic rebound could go hand in hand with sustainability. The aim of this article is precisely to illustrate the major steps taken in this direction.
The support to the idea that the EU should reduce its effort and resources to the development of an efficient climate change policy gained popularity during the first stages of the pandemic. The proposal of Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš (and some colleagues) to pause or even disregard altogether the EU Green Deal serves as an illustrative example. The proposal was short-lived, however, as the majority of Member States representatives made it clear that the EU response would have to foresee a more sustainable economic reprise. In an open letter published on April 9th, 17 of the 27 EU ministers for the climate and the environment compelled the Heads of States and Governments to propel action at the EU level, demanding the Green Deal to be a focal point of the common European recovery plan.
The result was that the Union’s €1 trillion budget and its recovery fund, emblematically named Next Generation EU, both contained provisions to ensure that the investment would be respectful of the environment. Importantly, 30% of the spending at the EU level will be destined to sustainable investment. The key determinant to assess the suitability of a certain expenditure will be the do no harm principle, which implies that funds cannot be deployed in activities or fields that might fuel climate change or environmental disruption. Hence, for instance, investments on fossil fuels will not comply with the principle.
The effort to steer the recovery towards a more green outcome was welcomed at the national level by several European nations. Concerning the transition to cleaner energy, Denmark will invest heavily to build offshore infrastructures that can harness the power of the sea wind, while Portugal has made plans to create a solar-plus-storage energy plant, with constructions starting next year. The latter will be set up in Évora and will consist of more than 571,000 solar panels, and has a yearly estimated energy production of 400,000MWh/year. Along similar lines, France extended contracting and grid connection deadlines, while also lightening the financial burden on new projects, while Austria and Sweden have shut down their coal-power plants.
In terms of policies, the Netherlands decided it will not defer the introduction of a carbon tax, which was originally proposed in 2019 to reduce the levels of CO2. The Dutch emit a per capita amount of CO2 that is higher than everywhere else in the European Union, while also performing poorly in terms of sustainable energy consumption per capita. With the objective to go zero-emission in the next ten years, the city of Amsterdam has completed a gradual phase-out of diesel cars and will only allow eco-buses to drive in the inner-city. However, the most ambitious plan will be to ban gasoline-powered cars by 2030. Germany will support more sustainable means of transportation too, as it has announced several subsidies for those who will purchase a hybrid or electric vehicles, as well as a public investment towards charging stations and battery production.
Several countries are investing in the creation and conservation of green spaces instead. Ireland will be spending €15 million to restore over 30,000 hectares of degraded wetland to preserve wildlife and reduce greenhouse emissions. The British government also intends to kickstart environmental renewal, thereby protecting jobs in the sector of nature conservation and restoration, through a £40 million fund, called Green Recovery Challenge Fund. Similar projects have been approved in other countries too, like Finland and Iceland, which will be investing more than €65 million and €1.5 million each. The latter is also planning to ban single-use plastic, which is among the most important sources of pollution for the marine environment.
EU nations seem to have all embraced this idea of green recovery, embodied by the commitment they signed at the Union level, but this is true for non-EU countries as well. Even overseas, some countries have taken their first step in the same direction. The Indian government has granted preferential treatment to the renewable resources sector, allowing facilities and centrals to remain open during the lockdown. On the other hand, Canada will require firms requesting support from the national recovery programme to provide a report of their environmental impact, and a plan on how they intend to manage it, in the application process. In Colombia, the recovery plan aims at planting more than 180 million trees; more than one-third of these should be planted before the end of this year, already. Reforestation efforts are a driving force of the response to the pandemic in Pakistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and New Zealand, where the recently re-elected Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is motivated to lead the way in the environmental crisis.
Having mentioned elections, it is impossible not to think of the United States of America, where President-elect Joe Biden, and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris, the first woman to hold that position, will assume office on January 20, 2021. Both Biden and Harris have identified environmental protection as a priority in their agenda, with the future US President having promised a plan of $5 trillion to combat environmental disruption. This comes as a significant breaking point in the line of action of one of the biggest economies, and thus biggest polluters, in the world. During his term, President Trump has revoked a series of national rules and regulations aimed at protecting the environment and fostering the development of the renewable energy sector. To mention some examples, Trump opened part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil and gas development, repealed a directive compelling federal agencies to minimise impacts on water, wildlife, land and other natural resources when approving development projects, and removed restrictions for commercial fishing in protected waters. More importantly, the POTUS has notoriously withdrawn the US from the Paris Agreement in 2019 – a decision that became effective on the 4th of November of this year, one day after the elections. In this respect, Biden has promised to rejoin the Agreement on his very first day of office.
Several countries around the world have thus seized the opportunity to rebuild their economies more sustainably. The adversity that the virus brought about, created a clear discontinuity in our lifestyle too, which is dramatically different today relative to how it was at the very beginning of this year. This means that we are also presented with the same opportunity: we too can choose to embrace more sustainable practices in our post-pandemic lifestyle. Indeed, there has been a lot of speculation as to when we will be able to return to our previous way of living, with many claiming that it will never be possible and that we should rather move forward. The tremendous experience of the pandemic and the lockdown has shown us that it is possible to adapt and evolve. We have been able to learn how to study and work remotely, to meet friends and family while keeping social distancing, and to never leave home without a mask. This puts eating a little less meat, walking rather than driving for short distances, or taking the time to properly dispose of waste, in perspective. Summarising, the green recovery involves us too, both as citizens, demanding that our governments push towards a green recovery, and as individuals, incorporating sustainability into our daily life.
17 European climate and environment ministers. (2020, April 9). European Green Deal must be central to a resilient recovery after Covid-19. Climate Home News. https://www.climatechangenews.com/2020/04/09/european-green-deal-must-central-resilient-recovery-covid-19/
Covid-19 and energy: setting the scene – Sustainable Recovery – Analysis – IEA. (2020). Covid-19 and energy: setting the scene – Sustainable Recovery – Analysis – IEA. IEA. https://www.iea.org/reports/sustainable-recovery/covid-19-and-energy-setting-the-scene#abstract
Environment, U. (2020). Amid COVID-19, these 10 countries are aiming to kickstart their economies by repairing nature. UN Environment. https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/amid-covid-19-these-10-countries-are-aiming-kickstart-their-economies
Portugal to host 257 MW solar-plus-storage plant. (2020, November 3). Pv Magazine International; pv magazine International. https://www.pv-magazine.com/2020/11/03/portugal-to-host-257-mw-solar-plus-storage-plant/
Simon, F. (2020, May 27). ‘Do no harm’: EU recovery fund has green strings attached. Www.Euractiv.Com; EURACTIV.com. https://www.euractiv.com/section/energy-environment/news/do-no-harm-eu-recovery-fund-has-green-strings-attached/
The Trump Administration Is Reversing Nearly 100 Environmental Rules. Here’s the Full List. (2020, October 16). The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/climate/trump-environment-rollbacks-list.html