By Laura Bochniak, 89 Initiative

This article was supposed to start differently – by sharing the vision of a new cleaner world where nature is reclaiming its space as a result of COVID-19’s lockdown. We’ve all seen posts about dolphins and swans in Venetian canals as well as before and after pictures of iconic places against a clean blue sky. Nonetheless, the sources of dolphin triumph are doubtful. As National Geographic reported, they have been rather photographed near Sardinia, where they have been living, live now, and hopefully will live in the future as well. I saw a few hedgehogs near my place in Warsaw, but whether their population is growing or is it just lockdown bias – it’s hard to tell.

What about the blue sky? Can the improved air quality be an indication of what happens when we finally start to produce and consume less? As Forbes reported on March, 27th, greenhouse gas emissions in Europe were supposed to decrease by 24.4 % in 2020 according to Independent Commodity Intelligence Service, and in China by 25% as per the Center for Research in Energy and Clean Air. These projections were based on government measures restricting the operation of industry and airlines. For instance, as a result of stagnation in the automotive and steel production in Italy, the power demand dropped by 3% during the first week of lockdown, and later by 10% as compared to the previous 5 years in March.

Indeed, by following the media, we may discover that improvements in air quality seem to be miraculous. In major cities including Paris, Madrid, and Rome and across the US, satellite images from the European Space Agency displayed reduced levels of nitrogen dioxide, which contributes to respiratory diseases and is a by-product of burning fossil fuels.

Does it all mean that the post-COVID-19 world will be better? At least for our respiratory tracks? Not necessarily – this positive trend is very short-lived. The situation in China shows how quickly air pollution can come back to normal. By late March, coal consumption and the resulting nitrogen dioxide pollution have returned to pre-lockdown levels.

Lessons learned? The transition to a net-zero emission economy needs to be sustainable and consistent and we need a global system change to achieve it. Ad hoc cutting down on emissions has almost no effect on the long-term decarbonization and the COVID-19 pandemics may fuel even more carbon-based investment if the policymakers and companies do not steer towards green recovery.

The current political situation at the EU institutional level is torn between alleviating the devastating economic effects of the COVID-19 and sticking to the climate targets. On the bright side, there is a new online public consultation to gather stakeholder views on increasing the EU 2030 climate ambition launched by the European Commission. The ultimate question is whether to increase the targets from the current level of at least -40% to -50-55% of greenhouse gas emission as compared to its 1990 levels. The EU commissioners seek to gather different views to ensure that this potential increase will not adversely impact the EU competitiveness, will ensure social fairness, and will provide access to secure, affordable, and sustainable energy. A comprehensive plan to increase the EU 2030 target is due in the third quarter of 2020.

The dark side of the story sees some climate policies being delayed due to the spread of COVID-19 pandemics. An updated program for 2020 shall be published on April, 29th, and will probably involve delays in policies which are less essential for the delivery of the absolute key priorities. The initiatives likely to be kept according to the initial timeframes are the Renewed Sustainable Finance Strategy, the 2030 Climate Target Plan, and the Renovation wave. Projects such as the review of the Non-Financial Reporting Directive, the Farm to Fork Strategy, or the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 may encounter some delays, however the final decision on if and for how long is still to be taken. Likely to fall out from the 2020 agenda are policies like the New EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change, the New EU Forest Strategy, and Empowering the Consumer for Green Transition.

Nonetheless, the European Commission is not left alone in its green focus on rebuilding the economy. 13 European climate and environment ministers have issued an open letter on April, 9th to remind us, that even amid the pandemic crisis, we need to “begin to prepare ourselves to rebuild our economy and to introduce the necessary recovery plans to bring renewed, sustainable progress and prosperity back to Europe and its citizens. While doing so, we must not lose sight of the persisting climate and ecological crisis. Building momentum to fight this battle has to stay high on the political agenda.” Among the signatories, there are representatives from even the most COVID-19 impacted countries such as Italy, Spain, and France.

Shortly afterwards, the ministers’ call was seconded by an alliance of 180 European politicians, business leaders, MEPs, NGOs, and environmental activists, who urged for a green recovery in form of supporting and implementing “the establishment of Green Recovery Investment Packages acting as accelerators of the transition towards climate neutrality and healthy ecosystems.” The signatories acknowledged that the current pandemics is the most challenging situation that we have ever faced in peacetime, but also an “opportunity to rethink our society and develop a new model of prosperity.” The new European model must be more resilient, protective, sovereign, and inclusive, and the Green principles are what shall be the driver to build an economy around these values. These principles shall also fuel the transition to a climate-neutral economy, biodiversity protection, and development of agri-food systems and act as a stimulus for the rapid delivery of jobs, increased wellbeing of citizens worldwide, and transformation into more resilient societies. Pascal Canfin, the Chair of the Environment committee of the European Parliament who initiated the call for mobilization warned that “if we relaunch the economy in the wrong direction, we will hit the climate crisis wall. We need to unite all the energies for a green recovery.”

The EU is certainly taking the green leadership again, however, we are not the only ones that care about the planet. Another Open Letter to Global Leaders “A Healthy Planet for Healthy People” was created by the Club of Rome, an organization composed of scientists, economists, business leaders, and former politicians who seek to find solutions to interconnected challenges of the world. The key message of the letter is that the emergence of infectious diseases such as Ebola, SARS, or COVID-19 results from human activities against the planet, such as deforestations, increased hunting, or expansion of agricultural land. Therefore, to remediate the current pandemics and any upcoming unforeseen crisis, we need to think in long term green perspective, and we need to act together. Global leaders must embrace a collective action to “move away from unmitigated growth at all costs and the old fossil fuel economy, and deliver a lasting balance between people, prosperity, and our planetary boundaries.”

Concerning recovery packages, the signatories urged that they “should not be designed as free tickets, but rather include some strong economic incentives and conditions for companies and industries to shift to a low carbon circular business model and invest in nature and people.” The letter was signed by more than 2,000 global stakeholders such as politicians, NGOs, private persons or business owners coming from numerous countries, including Costa Rica, Canada, Switzerland, the USA, UK, Japan, and Germany. But are these letters likely to be converted into real action? Or are they just a CSR exercise, at least on the part of big businesses?

Some facts claim to the contrary – Royal Dutch Shell has recently deepened its climate targets, claiming that the plan is to become a net-zero emissions company by 2050. Its rival Eni commits to an 80% reduction by the same year. On the other side of the globe in Japan, investors with almost $200 billion in assets who hold shares in Mizuho Financial Group say that they will back shareholder motion demanding the bank to cut its lending for coal and other fossil fuels. This is the first time that a Japanese publicly-traded company was faced with a shareholder climate change resolution.

Back in Europe, the government in Vienna makes clear during its negotiations with Lufthansa, that its state aid for Austrian Airlines is subject to promise to support climate policy targets. A significant reduction in short-haul flights, the usage of eco-friendly fuel and flight tax adjustments are the most likely conditions that Lufthansa would need to agree to.

Seemingly, although we may still need to wait for seeing dolphins in our backyard, there is a chance that the world has finally realized what danger we face. If even more states and companies commit to the green recovery, we may meet the Paris Agreement or even more ambitious targets. That shall vice versa allows us to avoid any other pandemics like COVID-19 in the future and create more green opportunities for the businesses.