The already devastating economic impact of the novel coronavirus has led to a welcome slump in carbon emissions. But governments are waiting with baited breath to kick-start their economies. Once the virus subsides, a predictable race to repair the global economy will take off.
Meanwhile, the EU is already being told by some its members - the coal-heavy Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland – to drop the European Green Deal which aims for Europe to reach net-zero by 2050. As concerns have shifted to emergency responses, the European Commission has been forced to re-order priorities to put “non-essential” environmental programmes, such as biodiversity and farm-to-fork, on the back foot.
But Europe needs to realise that deprioritising the Green Deal is a huge mistake. Scientists have long warned of the inevitability of a pandemic due to our civilisation’s relentless encroachment onto natural ecosystems and wildlife, resulting in the repeated breaching of ecological boundaries. Climate change amplifies the risks of exotic diseases spreading.
If the EU fails to transform its economic priorities, we will be unable to avoid not only the next pandemic, but also an unprecedented climate disaster. Faced with COVID-19’s dire economic impacts, it is understandable for the EU to ponder if the stakes are high enough. But the stakes don’t get much higher than climate change. There is no vaccine for climate change after the planet warms beyond 2 degrees Celsius – the “point of no return.”
That is why we need to ensure that economic recovery programmes not only take measures to protect the most vulnerable during the pandemic, but ensure longer-term economic sustainability to avert the next great ecological crisis. That means the EU must do everything it can to keep the European Green Deal on the road with a view to pave the way for a vibrant post-COVID-19 economy that works within planetary boundaries.
But to do this we need to have a joined up approach which corrects the oversights of the EU’s previous Green Deal approach. Currently the EU sees COVID-19 stimuli and the Green Deal as two separate tracks. In reality, “helicopter money” delivered by European nations to sustain their economies should invest in real assets designed to directly build up the infrastructure of the European Green Deal.
The EU should firstly avoid the temptation to continue shoring up ailing fossil fuel industries, which have been hit by the slump, instead pushing for a concerted retraining and reskilling programme to shift those industry jobs into the new renewable energy industries of the 21st century.
Instead of dropping biodiversity and agricultural commitments, the EU needs to remember that not only can the right approach boost economies, but unsustainable practices which degrade the environment increase the risk of disease outbreaks.
Agriculture is the second largest driver of climate change, due to huge inputs of fossil fuels into pesticides, fertiliser and even processing, packaging and distribution. Therefore, the EU should invest more in scaling up innovations in “agro-ecology.” By transitioning to more resilient, local and urban agro-ecological farming, we can not only produce the food we need with far less energy and water, we can move production closer to consumers and open up new opportunities for jobs and training.
The EU should also urgently re-evaluate its narrow and self-defeating approach to tackling the third biggest driver of climate change - deforestation. The EU’s approach has been deeply incoherent; banning palm oil for biodiesel due to its role in deforestation while supporting production of other oilseeds such as soy and rapeseed, and continuing to import beef (the latter are linked to even greater rates of deforestation). In doing so, the EU has jeopardised economic opportunities in Asia, where countries like major palm oil producer Malaysia have warned that EU actions have scuppered trade agreements with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). And even worse, as a new paper in research journal Nature argued last month, the ban means that demand will switch to oilseeds which use up far more land and energy than palm oil.
The EU should instead move to support regional transition efforts, such as Malaysia’s decision to introduce the world’s first government-backed mandatory regulations for 100% sustainable palm oil. It should also make imports of soy and beef conditional on South American nations adopting similar regulation as adopted in Malaysia. Such a revised Green Deal approach will not only incentivise sustainable production across these regions, but open up new possibilities for trade that will help revive sustainable economic activity in the wake of COVID-19, and allow the EU to bring its own consumption levels back within “limits to growth.”
Retreating into our emergency bunkers is an understandable reaction. But this is not the time for fear. This is the time for EU policymakers to hold fast to their vision of a third - “clean” - industrial revolution. As the world enters a period of prolonged uncertainty, the EU’s leadership on the Green Deal will provide a critical source of inspiration for how we re-engineer our economies for the post-COVID-19 age.
- Fazlun Khalid is an advisor to the UN on environment and faith. He is a member of the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme, a member of the UN Task Team on Religion and of the UN’s Development Advisory Council. He is the founding director of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES).
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