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CEE must not lose sight of climate goals

It is time for Europe to address several issues at the same time. In fact, it seems impossible to focus on the coronavirus’ outbreak and forget about climate change. Or concentrating on renewables while ignoring people’s health.

One might argue that, among all the deadly effects of the COVID-19, both on people’s health and the global economy, there is at least one beneficiary: our planet.

The growing lockdowns have led to a dramatic reduction in nitrogen dioxide concentrations, especially in countries like China or Italy, hit hard by the virus outbreak.

The European Space Agency (ESA) noted a decrease of fine particulate matter, one of the most important air pollutants, in February 2020 compared to the previous three years. By combining satellite observations with detailed computer models of the atmosphere, through the Copernicus Sentinel-5 Precursor mission, their studies indicated a reduction of around 20-30 per cent in surface particulate matter over large parts of China.

“We can certainly attribute a part of the nitrogen dioxide concentration reduction to the impact of the coronavirus,” commented Claus Zehner, ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-5P mission manager. “We currently see around a 40 per cent reduction over Chinese cities, however, these are just rough estimates, as weather also has an impact on emissions.”

It is only temporary

According to Thorfinn Stainforth, Policy Analyst at the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), there is no reason to believe the situation would be different in Central and Eastern Europe.

“Emissions are likely to decrease temporarily due to the reduced economic activity,” he tells CEENERGYNEWS. “However, they will likely rebound once the crisis is over, just as we have seen in previous crises.”

In this difficult period, the European Environment Agency (EEA) has been asked on many occasions about the impact of COVID-19 measures on the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions.

In many of the EEA’s reports, it has been underlined the link between the economic performance of some sectors and environmental impacts. This current crisis is expected to have a strong effect on production and consumption patterns, such as reducing demand on mobility, including international aviation and daily commuting by private cars.

“The economic activity is slowing down so there are fewer emissions, and that’s good for the climate,” Rystad Energy’s Senior Oil Markets analyst Paola Rodriguez-Masiu tells CEENERGYNEWS. “But as the economy struggles from the COVID-19 impacts, the economic considerations will overcome everything else as governments will be more concerned with the economy and leave aside climate and other discussions. Also, most climate change regulations come at an economical cost, so it will sadly fall second after how to restore the economy.”

However, according to the EEA, to have a clearer understanding of the extent, the duration, as well as some expected and unexpected effects, more data are needed.

“Without a fundamental transformation of our production and consumption systems, any emission reduction triggered by such economic crises is likely to be short-lived and come at an extremely high cost to society,” commented EEA Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx.

Europe aims to achieve climate neutrality through gradual and irreversible emission reductions and by setting long-term objectives to build a resilient economy and a resilient society, and not through disruptive shocks.

And here’s where multitasking can play a major role. Can the EU still achieve its ambitious targets while at the same time dealing with the consequences of the virus outbreak?

“There is indeed a risk that governments might put a brake on needed reforms to address climate change and deprioritise the implementation of agreed goals while they focus on the immediate priority of handling the coronavirus crisis,” comments Mr Stainforth. “However, the climate crisis does not disappear because we are now facing an immediate health threat.”

An unmissable opportunity to turn green

On the contrary, Mr Stainforth believes that there are benefits from meeting the urgent situation today with measures that also promote sustainability.

“Medium-term recovery policies can be pragmatically aligned with sustainable long-term climate strategies,” he says. “A well-designed recovery strategy can promote sustainability and modernise Europe by using stimulus funds that will be spent anyway for a double-benefit. While Europe, and the world, face unprecedented challenges, we can design a recovery programme that will coherently address short and long-term problems without indulging in panicky or self-interested policy u-turns.”

In his view, a period of low oil prices represents an unmissable opportunity to eliminate fossil-fuel subsidies with minimal disruption. Industries which receive public assistance should face conditionalities to help them modernise. Stimulus investments should be targeted toward sustainable options to help build the resilience of the EU economy.

The European project is about ensuring that no one is left behind in any crisis, whether it is corona or climate.

“This warrants even greater solidarity between the more affluent parts of Europe and Southern, Central and Eastern European Member States, who are likely to be particularly vulnerable to the impacts of the forthcoming economic recession,” continues Mr Stainforth citing the European Green Deal’s motto.

Also, Mrs Rodriguez-Masiu believes in this opportunity.

“For some countries, it can be an opportunity as governments will boost expenditure programs to take the economy out of a prolonged recession, and they might decide to divert money for green energy infrastructures, which create local jobs and can reactivate the economy in parts where there are few job opportunities,” she says.

For Christof Rühl, Senior Research Scholar at the Centre on Global Energy Policy supported by Columbia University, the introduction of clean technology could be an answer to solve both issues. However, this situation could delay the EU efforts to prevent climate change.

“The longer the situation lasts, the longer countries’ economies will suffer, so new measures to support the economy will be needed,” he tells CEENERGYNEWS.

Delayed efforts to prevent climate change

It is not a secret that several CEE governments were not entirely in favour of the European Green Deal.

Poland, for example, relies on coal for 80 per cent of its electricity and the only EU nation that has yet to commit to the bloc’s target. Last December, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki addressed journalists saying that he had secured an exemption for Poland on the 2050 target. The country was waiting for more generous commitments of EU funds to move away from fossil fuels.

“Poland will be reaching climate neutrality at its own pace,” Mr Morawiecki had said.

Also, Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš said that European countries should focus their attention on coping with the epidemic crisis and abandon the objectives of reaching climate neutrality. A comment that came with no surprise, as Mr Babiš had already stated many times the importance of coal and nuclear for the Czech Republic, even if “in breach of European law.”

“If governments such as Poland’s, use the crisis as a reason to delay climate action, greenhouse gas emissions will remain higher in the years to come,” underlines Mr Stainforth. “This means greater environmental and financial burden during the next economic and political cycle since for every passing year that GHGs are unaddressed, sharper, faster cuts will be needed to avoid future disruptions and crises.”

But in terms of delays or derogations of short-term targets or milestones, it is too early now to speculate on their necessity without a clearer picture of the length and breadth of economic and social disruption.

“While Polish climate Minister Kurtyka has already suggested derogations might be necessary, some of his proposals to help develop the EU renewable energy industry are constructive, and these should be used to build a proactive and positive European response if the Polish government follows upon them,” continues Mr Stainforth.

The people living in CEE stand to benefit economically, socially and health-wise from a comprehensive Green Deal, so any delay will only end up costing them.

“Over 47,000 premature deaths per year in Poland can be attributed to air pollution, for example, not to mention the heavy health care burden. A coherent and comprehensive Green Deal can help to improve this situation,” Mr Stainforth adds.

Eventually, the current crisis is just another proof of why all European countries need an energy transition.

EEA’s Director Mr Bruyninckx stays very positive when asking if can we achieve our ambitious targets in the years to come when we will be also dealing with the impacts of this major crisis.

“A socially just transition planned and implemented over the long term is the only way forward to build a resilient society with a strong and sustainable economy.”

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