Although the coronavirus pandemic has left the economies of many countries in shambles, members of the international climate community are already demonstrating their commitment to addressing the ongoing climate crisis while working to contain the virus and manage its impacts.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, addressing ministers from around the world last week at a virtual Petersberg Climate Dialogue, underscored the imperative of keeping the climate challenge front and center. While containing the COVID-19 pandemic and helping those in need are paramount concerns, Merkel said, governments also can find ample opportunity to advance climate action even as they work to rebuild their battered economies.
A recent poll underscores her point: Majorities in G-20 countries agree that economic recovery in the wake of COVID-19 should prioritize climate change. At the launch of the Petersberg Dialogue, 68 companies from a range of sectors called for governments to ensure compliance with the Paris Agreement during the stimulus response to the pandemic. Many countries, especially those further along the coronavirus curve, are in fact looking closely at how to build green recovery into stimulus.
The European Union, for instance, has confirmed its commitment to put the European Green Deal at the heart of their post-coronavirus recovery efforts. Joining ministers from 12 countries, an informal alliance of 37 CEOs of Europe’s biggest global companies, business associations, and trade unions are calling for a green recovery in Europe. As Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president of the European Commission recently declared, “The European Green Deal is not a luxury, but a lifeline to get out of the coronavirus crisis.” An analysis by a Finnish power engineering firm contends that the EU’s coronavirus response has helped accelerate its clean energy transition by a decade.
The UK government pledged a £30 billion stimulus to offset the economic impact of the outbreak while dedicating funds to “green transport solutions,” including rapid electric car charging points, a tree-planting fund, and carbon capture and storage.
China, the first country to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak, is pushing forward with new infrastructure like 5G networks and artificial intelligence to boost the efficiency of the economy, and is prioritizing “shovel-ready” projects that stimulate green sectors, increase renewable energy investment, and create jobs, like charging points for electric vehicles and the expansion of high-speed rail.
South Korea, in the wake of one of the world’s first COVID-19 elections, will end coal financing and set a 2050 net zero emissions goal, making it the first nation in East Asia to do so. It will begin to implement its Green New Deal, published in March, which also includes a carbon tax, investment in renewable energy sources, and a hydrogen strategy.
And cities like Milan are using the shutdown as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to leapfrog ahead in achieving their climate goals. Milanese citizens returning to work after restrictions are lifted will find that 22 miles of streets will have been transformed this summer by a rapid, experimental, citywide expansion of cycling and walking space to protect residents.
For many countries, especially in the developing world, maintaining a climate focus while coping with the pandemic and its economic impact will be far more challenging. International support will remain critical, if not more urgent. About 120 countries rely on support from the UN, development banks, and NGO partnerships to develop and implement climate policies. In the best cases, countries may find themselves redirecting their climate budgets toward economic recovery.
Some countries, however, are already in a worst-case scenario: facing the hardships of extreme weather events and a coronavirus pandemic. Island states like Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga, which are already suffering from climate change impacts, were recently battered by Cyclone Harold as they try to cope with the spread of COVID-19. But even in the midst of the pandemic, the Alliance for Small Island States (AOSIS) hosted the virtual Placencia Ambition Forum last week. Members reaffirmed their commitment to climate neutrality and called for increased ambition and financial support.
Countries also emphasized at last week’s Petersberg dialogue the importance of keeping the international climate effort on track.
The first formal UN climate meeting of the year has been pushed back to October at the earliest and COP 26 has been postponed until 2021. Many ministers stressed that, despite those delays, countries should still stick to this year’s deadline for coming forward with new nationally determined contributions and mid-century climate strategies. UN Secretary-General António Guterres for “brave, visionary and collaborative leadership” to advance climate ambition in the face of current difficulties.
With severe travel restrictions and shelter-in-place orders, many meetings planned to develop and refine countries’ NDCs and mid-century strategies have been canceled or postponed. Some countries are pivoting to teleconferences to get the work done. In the UK and France, citizen assemblies have shifted their meetings online, committed to contributing to their governments’ recovery and net-zero emission plans.
Reviving economies while still getting on track toward the Paris Agreement’s goals is an extraordinary challenge, and the pandemic is far from over. But cities and countries are also seeing opportunities to address climate as they rebuild their economies. Their success in simultaneously increasing jobs and enhancing sustainability will help strengthen the confidence and innovation we’ll need for even more ambitious climate action once the pandemic subsides.