30 april 2020

EU grapples with melding pandemic recovery and climate agenda

Leaders say vast rebuilding funds are chance to create greener economy but some insist fighting virus is priority

Coronavirus lockdown has emptied the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, but the EU is continuing to pursue its environmental policies

Leslie Hook, Mehreen Khan and James Shotter, Financial Times , April 30, 2020

Angela Merkel has thrown her weight behind calls to toughen EU climate targets, as Brussels grapples with how far to use trillions of euros in coronavirus recovery funds to create a greener economy.

Joining a growing number of leaders who vow the pandemic will not derail the bloc’s green goals, the German chancellor said on Tuesday: “If we look at the severe harm that has been caused by the coronavirus crisis to our economies . . . we have to encourage each other not to forget climate protection and not to reduce [it] to save money, but to enhance it.”

After the pandemic, there would be “a difficult debate about the allocation of funds”, she told a virtual climate summit. “But it is important that recovery programmes keep an eye on the climate. We must not sideline climate but invest in climate technologies.”

Coronavirus lockdowns have pushed the European economy to the brink of recession and delayed key climate meetings, including the COP26 summit originally set to be held in the Scottish city of Glasgow in November.

But the European Commission has said it will stick with ambitious environment goals set out in its Green Deal last December, including making the bloc climate-neutral by achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Brussels is discussing plans to give trillions of euros in financial support to economies struck by the crisis, using the EU’s seven-year budget and special recovery instruments.

EU officials are hopeful that the unprecedented recovery effort will be an opportunity to accelerate the transition to climate neutrality.

“It is a dereliction to think the Green Deal can’t be a growth strategy to get us out of this crisis,” Frans Timmermans, EU executive president in charge of the Green Deal, told MEPs last week. “Every euro will be needed to take us into the new economy. Things will not go back to how they were.”

Germany was one of the holdouts against the 2050 target in discussions last year but has now emerged as one of its key supporters. On Tuesday Ms Merkel reiterated her support for the bloc to adopt a new target of a 50-55 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared with 1990 levels. The current goal is 40 per cent.

Some 17 of the EU’s 27 member states — including Germany, France, and Denmark — are pressing Brussels to pursue the Green Deal, which involves a radical overhaul of almost every area of policymaking, from transport and farming to energy.

“It is extremely important that we stay on track with the EU climate law, and [have] an updated climate target for carbon dioxide reduction in 2030,” Danish climate minister Dan Jorgensen told the FT.

“There are voices arguing that because we are in such a big crisis now, green investment is nice to have but not a need to have,” he said “I see it the other way around.”

Macron: coronavirus is Europe's 'moment of truth'

In a position paper sent to EU governments last week, the Dutch government urged the commission to “withstand the temptation of short-term solutions” to the pandemic that “risk locking the EU into a fossil fuel economy for decades to come”.

But the economic recession triggered by the pandemic has emboldened EU countries that have resisted accelerating the pace of emissions cuts, including coal-dependent states such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Last month Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš said the EU should forget about the Green Deal and focus on Covid-19.

A senior Czech official on Tuesday said the Green Deal could not be the only way of stimulating the economy in the wake of the pandemic.

“The policy has to be adjusted. We can’t just keep proposals that were
made before the crisis,” the official said. “There has to be a process
of adapting it to the new circumstances.”

A spokesman for Poland’s climate ministry said on Tuesday that Warsaw supported the EU’s goal of shifting the economy away from dependence on fossil fuels but that some measures might have to be delayed as a result of the pandemic.

“The priority at the moment is fighting coronavirus,” the spokesman said. “Certain things that were meant to be done this year will be delayed by coronavirus. But [the Polish government] is not negatively disposed to the idea of a Green Deal itself.”

Mr Timmermans has said the commission will propose a plan to tighten Europe’s 2030 emissions target by September despite the COP26 postponement.

The pandemic has also forced Brussels to delay some environmental projects, including a review of its biodiversity strategy and an initiative to promote sustainable agriculture.

Brussels will on Wednesday publish a revised timetable for initiatives delayed due to the coronavirus. Among them will be work on developing sustainable aviation fuels and measures to encourage adaptation to climate change.

A senior EU official said the wave of recovery funding provided an opportunity to unleash investment in green technology.

“We will throw an enormous amount of money at our industries,” said the official. “If there is a moment where caution is no longer needed then it is now. The money is there and the need to modernise is there — let’s use it.”

>>> Back to list