By Jackie Howell
2020 tied with 2016 as the warmest year on record, sparking a need to address climate change. The European Union (EU) aims to combine climate efforts with a post-COVID recovery plan. However, can member-states overcome their political differences and come to a consensus?
COVID-19 highlights the relationship between health, the economy, and the environment. The European Green Deal, introduced in December 2019, seems like the perfect opportunity to address the effects of COVID-19 and climate change. Local and regional leaders are prioritizing a green recovery from COVID-19, as outlined in the ENVE Commission of the European Committee of the Regions’ 2021 work program. Over the next decade, the EU will mobilize €1 trillion of investments to create a clean circular economy, restore biodiversity, and reduce pollution.
Responses to the Climate Crisis
Climate change has already been on most governments’ agendas. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report detailing the impacts of global warming, arriving at the conclusion: Earth is experiencing a climate emergency.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has prioritized greening the EU economy. In 2019, the European Parliament voted in favour of declaring a climate emergency and committed to becoming the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. The EU also committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to at least 50% of 1990’s levels.
However, ongoing divisions between the East and West and the North and South pose additional hurdles for EU consensus. Dissenters such as the right-wing European People’s Party (EPP) warned against giving this impression of panic, downplaying the urgency of climate change. A few right-wing political groups even advocated to postpone the European Green Deal and refocus on economic recovery.
The 2008 Financial Crisis vs. the COVID-19 Recession
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a new wave of green measures, such as renewable energy investments, reductions in fossil fuels consumption, support for electric vehicles, and investments in infrastructure. These green recovery packages are reminiscent of the green stimulus packages launched after the 2008 financial crisis. Can lessons from the past help governments from repeating past mistakes?
In response to the 2008 financial crisis, the 2008 European Economic Recovery Plan introduced a budget of €200 billion, investing some of the funds in energy efficiency, low-carbon or clean technologies, and green infrastructure. Investments in clean energy helped countries build up competitive industries after the 2008 Recession. For the EU, each $1 in green investment boosted GDP by up to $1.50 across the region. However, the 2008 financial crisis led to a new wave of support for far-right populist parties due to the rise in unemployment and a decline in trust in institutions.
In the case of COVID-19, populist parties are now losing support as the bloc finds it more integrated than before. Even coal-dependent Poland shifted its tone on the Green Deal. However, clashing interests can still constrain the EU’s ambitious climate goals, leading to stalemates and a disintegrated EU.
Challenges to the Green Deal
The EU recognizes that environmental pollution, climate change, and issues of inequality are linked, so the EU is committed to making a “just and inclusive transition for all.” However, public backlash presents a challenge for the EU Green Deal. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel faced pressure from automakers as German car brands faced plummeting sales due to COVID-19. An overwhelming majority of Europeans and companies support climate action, but their desire to change their own behaviour is quite limited.
While climate change is a less polarized topic in Europe than in the United States, opposition can quickly grow. Far-right parties are increasingly taking a stand on climate change, spreading messages of denialism, inaction, or apathy. The European Green Deal presents far-right populists with the perfect target to divide voters.
COVID-19 is a unique opportunity for governments to create policy that reduces exposure of environmental, social, and economic risks in crises. Lessons from the 2008 economic packages can guide European policymakers in designing green stimulus packages that work for the environment and for all workers. Now is the time for the EU to convince Europeans that climate inaction will only lead to more health and economic crises before it becomes too late.