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Does COVID-19 pose a threat to the EU’s climate neutrality efforts?

Climate & energy targets / COMMENTARY
Sofia López Piqueres

Date: 31/03/2020
There is a real danger that the COVID-19 crisis will derail the Union's climate efforts. But rather than use the current situation as an excuse not to act, EU leaders need to show statesmanship now more than ever by daring to tackle the climate, health and socioeconomic crises in unison.

“Statesmanship is not as rare as statesmen, because on occasion quite ordinary [people] are capable of the extraordinary deeds we designate as acts of statesmanship, but it is rare enough.” - Werner J. Dannhauser[1]

As the health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic and its severe socioeconomic ramifications are understandably at the forefront of member state leaders’ minds, 2020 will surely challenge their level of statesmanship. They will need to juggle the COVID-19 crisis and the expected economic recession with a well-known yet slower onset one, the climate crisis – the one that is here to stay.[2] The joint management of both crises will define how they go down in history books.

Fears about the impact of the coronavirus on our commitment to climate action are mounting. Due to the health and socioeconomic crises and the political inability of most leaders to deal with more than one emergency at a time, the implementation of the European Green Deal is expected to suffer delays. This could affect initiatives such as the Farm to Fork strategy and the follow-up to the European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan.

Will today’s pandemic, and our leaders’ struggles to tackle it alongside other crises, blow Europe’s 2020 efforts to align ambitious EU emissions-reduction targets with the mid-century climate neutrality goal right off course? Now more than ever, statesmanship is needed to turn ongoing challenges into opportunities that accelerate rather than obstruct the transition towards climate neutrality.

An excuse for inaction?

Three broad categories of leaders can be identified at the member state level in the EU’s climate neutrality agenda, and more specifically, greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction debates: (i) the feisty, business-as-usual oriented group; (ii) the go-with-the-flow bystanders; and (iii) the forward-looking, but at times not sufficiently courageous camp.

The feisty, business-as-usual oriented group of leaders usually tries to put stokes in the wheels of progress. Politicians in this category include prime ministers (PMs) Andrej Babiš and Mateusz Morawiecki, who have never been truly committed to GHG emission reduction and are proactively looking for excuses (note: COVID-19) to ditch green efforts altogether.[3]

On the opposite end, the third category of forward-looking, well-intentioned leaders (e.g. PM António Costa) have supported EU climate neutrality efforts in the past, but in the shadow of the COVID-19 crisis, might become reluctant to make an effort to translate their words into actions.

The fight between these two opposing camps will not only become increasingly visible but also hamper the Council’s progress on the Green Deal in the upcoming weeks and months. There is a significant      risk that the pandemic will shift the balance in favour of the first, business-as-usual camp. They will likely be successful in capitalising on the distraction posed by the severe COVID-19 crisis to derail European emission reduction efforts.    

Sadly, the opposing group might not even be able to put up a fight, as they will likely concentrate all of their efforts and political energy on coping with the economic downturn caused by the crisis, instead of on finding synergies with climate crisis consequences, to address both issues simultaneously.

More fundamentally, however, the Council will be affected by its inherent ineffectiveness to juggle multiple crises at the same time. This was the case with the recent challenges deriving from the escalation of the Greek debt crisis, the management of the influx of migrants and refugees, the climate crisis and Brexit, among others.

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis thus provides a concrete test of statesmanship. A test that will help separate the wheat from the chaff and identify the leaders who are truly committed to tackling the climate crisis, even in times of multiple crises.

Turning challenges into opportunities

The global response to the devastating COVID-19 crisis has shown that countries can take radical and immediate measures to protect the well-being of their citizens. More will follow. Some could constitute a prime effort to fill two needs with one deed: tackling the socioeconomic and climate crises in a way that is aligned with the Green Deal. Other climate efforts, however, will need to weather a diversion of attention and resources and will only survive if leaders are not afraid to show statesmanship.

To increase the chances of reaching the climate neutrality target before it’s too late, leaders should keep their eyes on the ball as the health of the people and the planet is at stake. To do so, they could start by focusing on these 4 long-due recommendations:

1) The first category of measures consists of the use of EU and national stimulus packages to invest in clean energy massively, an idea championed by the International Energy Agency’s Executive Director.[4] These packages should be coordinated by member states with the support of the Commission to optimise their impact and avoid negative spillover effects, from one country to another. Given the climate and environmental emergency, this measure should turn the temporary reduction in GHG emissions attributed to COVID-19 into a lasting and permanent one.

2) These packages must go hand in hand with major EU efforts to review and increase the Union’s GHG emission reduction target for 2030 before the summer to at least 50% and towards 55% compared with 1990 levels, in line with the climate neutrality goal. A dozen member states (i.e. Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden) urged the Commission in a letter sent in early March to present an impact assessment on this target by June. They feared that if the Commission only published in September, as planned, the bloc would not have sufficient time to adopt the new goal and pressure large polluters like China to scale up their climate pledges before the 2020 UN Climate Change Conference.

Although it is not yet possible to assess the actual extent of the socioeconomic fallout caused by the pandemic per country, the outlook is (very) bleak. Many of the 12 listed countries are among the top ten EU countries with the most confirmed COVID-19 cases, and given the concerning state of the Southern European and French economies even before the outbreak, the socioeconomic impact of the coronavirus is particularly worrying. This impact could also create a negative spillover on the most affected countries’ political mood, willingness and ability to push for greater ambition, and could shelve these green efforts.

However, now more than ever, leaders ought to flex their statesmanship and seize the momentum as a lever for a green transformation of societies and economies as mentioned – albeit only in passing – in the Joint Statement of the Members of the European Council on 26 March. Given that the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis will take different tolls on member states, the need to factor in just transition considerations carefully should be an even greater concern.

3) We face a unique chance to bolster the emission reduction agenda further by eliminating the traditional preferential treatment given to already weakening fossil fuel industries, as oil prices tank. Practically speaking, member states should phase out or end the subsidising and supporting of fossil fuels, and instead use that money to support the deployment of renewables and energy efficiency projects when necessary.

4) Additionally, the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS), presented by the Commission as a “cornerstone of the EU’s policy to combat climate change as the central tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions”,[5] should become the new target of reformist efforts. Even once the COVID-19 crisis is over, global warming will continue. Therefore, measures that do not significantly reduce emissions and boost investments in clean energy technologies, like the ETS, should be thoroughly rethought and (re)aligned with the climate neutrality objective. This could be done by eliminating free allowances, strengthening the cap on allowances to align it with the more ambitious emission reduction target, reducing the surplus of allowances and implementing an ETS price floor that would rise at a fixed annual rate.

Warnings of inevitable pandemics from years ago and recent outbreaks (e.g. Ebola, Zika) have not managed to scare the inertia fully out of governments. PHLawFlu, a project co-funded by the EU over a decade ago, showed that the European legal landscape to support pandemic policy measures was highly fragmented. Furthermore, a 2017 paper admitted that this fragmentation was a threat to coherent and coordinated responses at the EU level.[6] COVID-19 has proven all of these warnings to be true.

This pattern of ignoring warnings seems to be repeated with climate change, the main difference being that policymakers and the public have been more exposed – and for longer – to the warnings. However, the actions taken by most member state leaders until now disregard the grave, imminent dangers that climate change presents to citizens’ and the planet’s health and well-being. How much longer will such indifference last?

Despite the alarming effects of the pandemic on our social, economic and political fabrics, a green window of opportunity has opened. It is time for political leaders to show their statesmanship and ambitiously tackle the pandemic and the climate crisis at the same time. The world is watching.


Sofía López Piqueres is Policy Analyst of the Sustainable Prosperity for Europe’s programme.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

[1] Dannhauser, Werner J. (1980), “Reflections on Statesmanship and Bureaucracy”, in Robert A. Goldwin (ed.), Bureaucrats, Policy Analysts, Statesmen: Who Leads?, Washington DC: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, pp.116.
[2] The migration management crisis also deserves attention but is beyond the scope of this commentary.
[3] Euractiv, “Czech PM urges EU to ditch Green Deal amid virus”, 17 March 2020.    
[4] Birol, Fatih (2020), “Put clean energy at the heart of stimulus plans to counter the coronavirus crisis,” Paris: International Energy Agency.
[5] European Commission, “EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS)” (accessed 30 March 2020).
[6] Speakman, Elizabeth M.; Scott Burris and Richard Coker (2017), “Pandemic legislation in the European Union: Fit for purpose? The need for a systematic comparison of national laws”, Health Policy, Volume 121, Issue 10, pp.1021-1024.

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