Coronavirus and climate crisis, is there hope?

When the Coronavirus pandemic paralysed transport, global pollution levels declined drastically, unveiling a blue sky even in Beijing. And in Venice, clear water replaced the city’s notoriously murky canals, it reaffirmed the radical notion that nature’s resurrection was possible. 

However, the economic impact of nature’s renewal has been significant. The European Commission, for example, has projected that Europe’s economy will decline by 7.4 per cent, this year. Before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, it was predicted that the economy of the 27-nation bloc would grow by 1.2 per cent, in 2020. 

To put these figures in perspective, the EU economy shrank by 4.5 per cent in 2009 in the midst of a global financial collapse. Even China, a global economic superpower, has been struggling. With half of the world focused on combatting Covid-19, few buyers are interested in purchasing Chinese goods. The EU was – and remains – China’s second-largest trader.

The significance of these economic implications raises heated questions for academic and political debate. Will the pandemic overshadow the climate emergency? With millions of people unemployed struggling to secure a livelihood in a post-pandemic world, will the climate still matter? Or can the current crisis be used as an opportunity to move towards a greener economy?

Unprecedented Collapse

Dr Frank Crowley, UCC

Dr Frank Crowley, of University College Cork’s School of Economics, told The Green News that “there is no previous economic crisis” that compares to the one prompted by Covid-19. “The answer to economic renewal is easier said than done, but it will all be about our ability to innovate.”

Being creative, Dr Crowley said, means making the best of our scant resources in the midst of restrictive measures imposed as a result of the health emergency – from efficient use of technology to save jobs to finding alternative ways to do business without jeopardising people’s health. 

Seasoned economists and green-minded activists alike have expressed concerns about the notion of diluting or postponing environmental regulations to assist polluting industries in a post-pandemic world. This is a thorny issue as airline executives, like Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary, have already expressed their lack of appetite for new environmental levies. 

In the Dáil last week, Minister for Transport Shane Ross also promised to assist in the survival of Irish airlines, albeit without making any mention of environmental regulations — nor, indeed, did any TDs questioning the outgoing Minister on this issue.

Hope in the Time of Corona

In January, before the Coronavirus crisis casted a heavy shadow on Europe’s economy, the European Commission promoted plans for moving toward a carbon-neutral future by introducing “The Green Deal” as its flagship theme. But while the economic impact of the crisis may complicate things, EU officials remain hopeful.

Ursula von der Leyen, the Commission President, for example, said last month that the bloc’s green goals should remain intact, adding that she had the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron to safeguard the EU’s green objectives. 

The EU is currently examining a law that would enforce carbon-neutrality by 2050, and before the pandemic took hold some European leaders were in favour of boosting the current targets for 2030, which would require increasing the current 40 per cent reduction levels set in 1999 in the next decade to as much as 50 per cent. 

The question now is whether the Coronavirus crisis has changed the equation. Do EU leaders still have the political will to examine green options for safeguarding the economy? 

Dr Crowley firmly believes that postponing environmental regulations for polluting industries is unwise. “Hopefully, the Covid-19 pandemic is a short-term shock, [whereas] climate change represents a short, medium and long-term catastrophic negative shock,” he said.

As he sees it, both the Coronavirus crisis and the climate emergency destabilise and upend our lives, so “if anything, the pandemic should be a wake-up call and make us recognise how our well-being and the planet are intertwined”.

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) has also published an array of guidelines for European governments to “transform fear into hope” by relaunching the EU economy in line with the ethos of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

“Stimulus packages created to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 crisis must promote climate neutrality, nature restoration, circular economy and zero pollution,” the EEB said. “Interventions should be used to create new jobs in different sectors such as “renewables and energy efficiency, the building sector through restoration programmes, through agro-ecological farming and ecological fishing practices, sustainable industrial production, zero-emissions infrastructure, and green chemistry.” 

Doughnut Economics

Cllr Lorna Bogue

Cork city’s Green Party Councillor Lorna Bogue, an economist by training, is also adamant that transitioning to a cleaner economy in a post-pandemic world is an achievable goal, if the political will to achieve it remains robust. 

Speaking to The Green News, she said that the Irish and other European governments must take the route of applying the concept of “doughnut economics” for the environment to survive the post-pandemic world. 

In her notable book, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, Kate Raworth argues that economic growth, in its primitive form, is alien to the concept of human well-being, and notes that economy should ideally meet everyone’s needs “within the means of the planet”. 

 We need economies that “make us thrive, whether or not they grow,” she wrote. 

In a similar vein, Councillor Bogue said that the concept of a doughnut economy advocates the idea of promoting efficiency and planetary health by avoiding extravagance — “providing people with the basic things that they need in order to thrive and have a good life, and at the same time having more circular economies that have less waste in them.” 

Ms Bogue’s backs a Green New Deal for Europe and for Ireland, which would address inequality on a large scale – from gender, race to workforce injustices – to combat climate change. She doesn’t believe that the Government should “bail out” polluting industries. Instead, the State should recognise workforce inequality, and curtail unnecessary costs that do little beyond generating income for large-scale business owners. 

Questions regarding the “ownership” of polluting industries, or workforce inequality in those sectors, are “what we’re not hearing about very much right now.”

“If you look at the Irish agriculture industry, we have beef farmers who are earning €8,000 a year, and they all have to work part-time in order to sustain that, which if you know the amount of work that goes into it, that’s not good for those workers,” she said.

“Then we have large dairy processors and manufacturers who are earning massive wages in comparison. These are the things we need to reassess [after the pandemic].”

Ms Bogue is optimistic that if we cut unnecessary costs and considered sustainable options while boosting workforce equality, we can rebuild both nature and the economy in a world battered by the consequences of a health emergency.

However, even as her own party makes an annual seven per cent emission cuts a condition for forming a Government with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, she has little faith in the dominant parties, noting that the outgoing Government was never strong enough to resist pressure from polluting industries. “That’s why change in the new Government is so essential.”

About the Author

Shamim Malekmian

Shamim is a Senior Reporter at The Green News and a contributing writer to the Irish Examiner, Cork Evening Echo and the Dublin Inquirer.