Will the Coronavirus Mean a Red Light for the EU’s Green Deal?


In January, the EU launched itself into the new decade with the unveiling of its Green Deal: an extensive plan of ambitious climate targets and reforms culminating in a carbon neutral Europe by 2050. There have been debates about the details of the plan particularly among the developers of carbon neutral technologies excluded from the plan. However, the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic is threatening to derail the EU’s aspiring climate change project before it’s even begun.

Inevitably the EU will have to consider its priorities, with measures to combat the coronavirus taking precedence over other “non-essential” tasks. It is understood that initiatives will be subject to delays while the Commission attends to more pressing legislative work.

This is already impacting on the Green Deal’s timeline with the publication of the biodiversity and the farm-to-fork strategies likely to be delayed by several weeks. These were both set for release in April.

However, amid the huge uncertainty about the long-term impact of the virus, it is impossible to predict whether the Green Deal will be able to get itself back on track. The next key targets are the release of the revised sustainable finance strategy (due in Q3) and the UN (COP26) international climate talks which should take place in Glasgow in November. The UK’s Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab gave recent indications that the climate talks may be postponed due to the virus.

Opposition to Green Deal

The emergence of the coronavirus has also shone a light on a fundamental challenge to the success of the Green Deal: the lack of agreement between Member States.

From the outset, there came opposition to Commission’s sweeping plans from a small group of eastern European countries (including the coal-heavy Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland) who say that the costs it imposes are too high.

The issue with the structure of the reforms under the Green Deal is that each measure to be proposed by the Commission will need approval from the Member States and the European Parliament to become binding. Perhaps modifications will need to be made in order to garner the necessary support of Member States.

The dissenting states have now raised their heads again in the face of the pandemic. The prime minister of the Czech Republic, Andrej Babiš, has told reporters that “Europe should forget about the Green Deal now and focus on the coronavirus instead”.

Meanwhile, Poland has suggested that the EU should suspend the emissions trading scheme under the Green Deal. Poland’s Deputy Minister of State Assets Janusz Kowalski tweeted that “The priority is lowering power prices for millions of Poles and for the Polish economy. How to do it? Disconnect the ETS — a useless gigantic cost for the economy.

Environmental Impact of the Coronavirus

Paradoxically, whilst leaders are calling for the Commission to switch its focus from the Green Deal to the coronavirus, there is growing evidence to suggest that the virus is responsible for a significant reduction in emissions (in the short term at least).

There have been global reports of improvements in air quality thanks to measures intended to curb the spread of the virus. Reductions in travel and factory production have led to a decrease in the use of fossil fuels. China has noted a drop in carbon emissions of an estimated 25 percent. Meanwhile, it is anticipated that Europe’s industrial emissions may be down by more than 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2020.

The Coronavirus Opportunity

Whilst the coronavirus might be doing the lawmakers’ job in the short term, it is not a long-term solution, with emissions set to rise to pre-virus levels once the economy is back on track. Given that the coronavirus is forcing us to assess all aspects our systems, should the EU be taking advantage of this unprecedented societal and economic audit to achieve its climate change aims?

Many of the big polluters (airlines, carmakers, oil majors) are feeling the corona crunch even more than others – with travel restrictions soaring and oil prices slumping. The current situation has highlighted the need for these industries to be creative and adapt to an unpredictable market.

Various EU governments, along with the European Central Bank, have announced enormous stimulus packages. However, there have been calls from environmental campaigners for any government support to certain industries to come with requirements in harmony with the Green Deal. For example, requiring airlines to reduce emissions, and encouraging other industries to reinvent e.g. oil and gas companies diversifying into renewable energy projects and car manufactures investing in electric vehicles.

The secretary-general of the UN, António Guterres said: “In managing this crisis we have a unique opportunity, we can seek a recovery towards a more sustainable and inclusive path.” Whilst tackling the coronavirus itself is clearly the top priority, the EU must ensure that it does not allow the virus to materially impact the trajectory of the Green Deal. The Commission must look to ways to use this opportunity to allow the EU to meet (or even exceed) Green Deal expectations and ensure that the Green Deal does not become another victim of the coronavirus.