Reflecting on climate-neutrality ambitions in Europe in times of Covid-19

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Article Published 20 Mar 2020 Last modified 03 Apr 2020
5 min read
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European countries are taking drastic measures to limit the impacts of Covid-19 on Europeans’ health and the economy. Such crises tend to have immediate and severe impacts on entire populations and the economy. Considering its potential to affect key economic sectors, the coronavirus crisis is expected to reduce some of the impacts of economic activities on the environment and climate. Yet, major and abrupt shocks with an extremely high cost to society are not at all how the European Union has committed to transform its economy and achieve climate neutrality by 2050. The European Green Deal and the recently proposed European Climate Law call instead for irreversible and gradual reductions in emissions, while ensuring a just transition, supporting those affected.

Minimising the impacts of the current public health crisis

Europe, like the rest of the world, is facing an unprecedented public health crisis, quickly spreading across the continent. News channels report regular updates on the number of people who are affected and lost their lives. European and national authorities have been implementing drastic measures to limit and slow down the spread of Covid-19. Restrictions on travelling, commuting and social gatherings are severely impacting several key economic sectors. Many flights are cancelled, and schools, restaurants and borders are closing. The term ‘lock-down’ captures the new reality in many European countries. And unfortunately, we are already seeing a very high number of casualties.

The first and foremost priority is to minimise the impacts on Europeans’ health and ensure the best possible provision of health services to those affected, followed by ensuring well-being, including jobs and livelihoods. 

Emission reductions and abrupt shocks like Covid-19

In this difficult period, the EEA has been asked on many occasions about the impact of Covid-19 measures on the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions. One of the unintended outcomes of such abrupt socio-economic shocks may be extra reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Other outcomes, such as temporary reductions in air pollution, have also been observed in some parts of China and Europe (e.g. during the ‘lockdown’ period in northern Italy)

Long-term exposure to air pollution has been known to contribute to chronic lung and heart conditions. Despite potential short-term improvements in air quality in some areas due coronavirus-related measures, people with such pre-existing conditions who have had long-term exposure to air pollution may become even more vulnerable during this period. 

In many of our reports, we have 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. However, to have a clearer understanding of the extent, the duration, as well as some expected and unexpected effects, we need to analyse the data in various domains after we get out of the crisis. The EEA is planning to assess these links and will share the results of such analysis in due course. 

However, 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. 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. This current crisis shows why we also need the transition to be a just one, offering new opportunities and support to those most affected.

Climate neutrality goal to be binding by EU law

Earlier this month, the European Commission proposed the European Climate Law, which aims to establish a long-term framework, complementing existing legislation, to achieve climate neutrality in the European Union by 2050. The European Union already has one of the most ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, supported by comprehensive legislative package. What makes this proposal unique is that it makes climate neutrality by 2050 a legally binding target. When adopted, the European Union and its Member States will be required by law to comply and take the necessary measures to achieve it.

The European Union has been reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the last three decades. The EEA's latest assessment shows that in 2018, EU greenhouse gas emissions were 23.2% below 1990 levels. It also asserts that extra effort and additional measures are needed to achieve the current 2030 target, set as ‘at least 40% reduction below 1990 levels’.

Empty street
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.

Need for speeding up and scaling up change

Despite these reductions, the Europe’s Environment — state and outlook 2020 (SOER 2020) report finds that progress is slowing down in areas such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, industrial emissions, waste generation, improving energy efficiency and the share of renewable energy in the overall energy mix. SOER 2020 also concludes that to tackle environmental degradation and climate change, we need to transform fundamentally the way we produce and consume goods and services. These findings confirm the urgent need for speeding up and scaling up transitions in key systems, including energy, food and mobility.

The European Climate Law proposal, which is one of the key components of the European Green Deal, is put forward against this background and raises the EU’s ambition level even higher. The proposal requires the European Commission to review the current 2030 target and ‘explore options for a new 2030 target of 50 to 55% emissions reductions compared to 1990’. It also outlines how progress towards climate neutrality will be regularly assessed, based among others on EEA reports. In addition to mitigation efforts, the proposal foresees regular assessments of climate adaptation measures.

As an independent knowledge provider, the EEA will fully support these processes by producing regular assessments of progress made in Europe towards climate neutrality.  

These climate objectives cannot be achieved without tackling the overarching sustainability challenge. Just as the European Commission is coming forth with other initiatives under the European Green Deal umbrella, including on circular economy, biodiversity and sustainable finance, our work addresses a number of areas to support sustainability transitions.

Pursuing ambitious targets in times of crisis

Even if it results in significant temporary reductions in emissions, Covid-19 is and will remain a serious public health crisis. Covid-19 and its multiple impacts on our society cannot in any way be perceived as an event with positive outcomes. Even those of us who, based on our expertise and knowledge, have been vocal and calling for serious changes in our systems of production and consumption, should not see the massive shut down of our society as an acceptable solution to urgent and systemic sustainability challenges.

The question remains: Can we achieve our ambitious targets in the years to come, when we will be dealing with the impacts of this major crisis? I think we can. In my opinion, a socially just transition planned and implemented over a long term is the only way forward to build a resilient society with a strong and sustainable economy. Moreover, the investments we will make to mitigate the economic impacts of this crisis should be, and can be, fully aligned with our long-term sustainability goals. Even during these trying times, the European institutions have confirmed their strong commitment to the long-term objectives of the European Green Deal. This will require strong partners, and that is exactly what the EEA aims to be.

  Hans Bruyninckx

Hans Bruyninckx

EEA Executive Director

Editorial published in the March 2020 issue of the EEA Newsletter 01/2020

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