Green Deal commissioner warns of Covid-19 eclipsing climate crisis

The coronavirus pandemic has caused the climate crisis to “tumble down” people’s priority lists, the EU’s green deal chief Frans Timmermans has acknowledged, but argues it has also opened a narrow window of opportunity for political action.

Timmermans: 'people’s focus will be on the end of the month, not the end of the world' (Photo by ARIS OIKONOMOU/AFP via Getty Images) Timmermans: 'people’s focus will be on the end of the month, not the end of the world' (Photo by ARIS OIKONOMOU/AFP via Getty Images)

“More than ever before, people’s focus will be on the end of the month, not the end of the world,” the European Commission executive vice-president wrote in a lengthy Facebook post on Sunday evening.

With the commission due to present on 6 May a revised proposal for a post-2020 budget as part of a Covid-19 recovery plan potentially worth €2 trillion, campaigners have been intensifying calls to place climate and environmental goals at the centre of Europe’s economic revival.

“Perhaps more than ever before, politics and societies in general will have to decide if they are able to let long term collective interests guide them when they make necessary and urgent decisions to overcome short term emergencies,” Timmermans wrote.

Activists are fighting to keep the environment at the centre of EU policy making. The head of Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe, Wendel Trio, echoed the Dutch politician’s concerns in a Monday morning press briefing, where he spelled out his organisation’s demands.

Europe must first of all avoid the next crisis, which may well be climate related. “It might not be as instant as Covid, but definitely one we want to avoid,” Trio said. To this end, CAN Europe wants to see enshrined in the EU recovery plan the principle that climate action is good for the economy, and a recognition that the virus was a direct result of humans “messing up” the ecosystem.

This latter assertion was echoed today by scientists behind a recent UN report into a global biodiversity crisis that is rapidly heading for a mass extinction event. “There is a single species that is responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic – us,” they wrote in an article published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

“Future pandemics are likely to happen more frequently, spread more rapidly, have greater economic impact and kill more people if we are not extremely careful about the possible impacts of the choices we make today,” the eminent scientists warned.

On climate action, Trio noted renewables offered the cheapest option for new energy investment. Improvements to Europe's building stock would open up huge job opportunities, he added while referring to a planned “renovation wave” – which has already been recognised inside the commission as “a key element of any post-Covid recovery”.

CAN Europe also wants to see strict conditions on budget spending, including an end to any support for the fossil fuel industry and a “brown list” of other off-limits sectors to complement a new EU green list of sustainable investment categories.

The commission’s technical expert group (TEG), tasked with developing the sustainable investment ‘taxonomy’, added today its own voice to the call for a green recovery package.

“The taxonomy is particularly relevant for new investments that are needed to transition our economy, showing how and where to cut carbon emissions, build climate- resilience, optimise supply chains towards sustainability and to stimulate jobs,” the TEG said in a statement.

Timmermans warned that attempts to push EU leaders in the right direction would have to be made quickly. “This window will not stay open forever,” he said. “The risk of going back to yesterday’s mistakes is probably bigger today than the chance to get it right from the get-go. But this should not discourage us.”

Follow-up: Timmermans facebook post; TEG statement; IPBES article

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