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Climate eclipsed by corona crisis — but why?

March 23, 2020

The COVID-19 outbreak has sent countries scrambling to avert economic disaster. Yet in a time of climate change, none appear to be prioritizing clean energy plans. DW spoke with experts to find out why.

Two women at a climate protest with face mask
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Thissen

2020 is meant to be a pivotal year in global efforts to turn the tide on climate change, but the coronavirus is threatening to throw a spanner in the works. 

Just 18 months ago, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world was way off course in its efforts to limit warming to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) and avoid the worst impacts of global warming. 

Paradoxically, the coronavirus catastrophe has given the world an idea of how quickly pollution could be reined in with extreme measures. The first few months of the year have seen an abrupt drop in CO2 emissions, with the COVID-19 outbreak temporarily shutting down industrial activity and grounding flights in large parts of Asia, Europe and North America. 

Even though experts warn these effects won't last long, some, like Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, are fervently appealing to governments to use this "historic opportunity" to include renewable energy in their stimulus plans to offset an economic recession of historic proportions.  

"This is the perfect time for a Green New Deal, a scaling up of clean, renewable energy and for a scaling up of low-carbon essential jobs such as home care workers, teachers, nurses, public health professionals, and service workers," Keya Chatterjee, executive director of the US Climate Action Network, told DW. 

So why aren't governments talking about taking the leap? 

Beijing smog
Smog has become a common sight in Beijing as seen here in this photo from 2018Image: picture-alliance/Imaginechina/Jiang Jianhua
Satellite images of pollution over China
But as this satellite image from early March shows, a slow down in industrial activity has seen CO2 emissions drop significantly during the corona crisisImage: picture-alliance/dpa/NASA

Focus on 'economic survival' 

In an effort to head off the looming economic crisis, panicked world leaders have opened the financial floodgates.

China is preparing to inject trillions of yuan to rekindle its economy, the US has approved a $2 trillion (€1,830 billion) stimulus package and the European Central Bank has said it will "explore all options and all contingencies to support the economy to counter this extraordinary shock." And that's not counting the hundreds of billions pledged by EU member states. 

Read more: Coronavirus shock vs. global financial crisis

Robert Dingwall, a sociologist and public health expert at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, said it's likely too early to even broach the subject of a clean energy revolution for many people.

"At present I think the big concern is economic survival and ensuring that viable businesses are not killed off by the sudden shock," he said in an email to DW.  

"It is very much about the immediate and unprecedented threat," added Dingwall —a global health threat not seen since the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, combined with stock market losses that have brought back bad memories of the 2008 financial crash.  

The need to prioritize concerns also rings true with Katharina van Bronswijk of Psychologists for Future, an inter-institutional group focused on climate change. 

"Psychologically, we do have a 'finite pool of worry' — so we can't worry about everything all the time," she said. But, she pointed out, just because the coronavirus is dominating the world's attention right now doesn't mean discussion has stopped. While online debate continues, she says "it's just become less visible at the moment." 

A closeup of Greta Thunberg in a yellow rain jacket
The corona pandemic has forced climate activists like Greta Thunberg to halt global climate strikes, at least on the streetsImage: Reuters/D. Martinez

Both Dingwall and van Bronswijk say it's easier "to mentally distance ourselves from the possible outcomes of climate crisis" than it is from the COVID-19 outbreak, with its frantic daily updates and the knowledge that we, or people close to us, could get sick and die.  

Climate change doesn't elicit the same response, said Dingwall, because "weather-related threats are very familiar and we have difficulty seeing them as aspects of long-term climate change." 

Climate-friendly policies still scarce 

German economist Claudia Kemfert notes that green investments were already on shaky ground before the outbreak.

"Even before the [COVID-19] crisis we had an investment delay in many important areas," said Kemfert, an expert in energy economics and sustainability with the German Institute of Economic Research (DIW). 

As recently as November, an analysis by the UK-based think tank InfluenceMap found that the world's largest investment funds were still underinvesting in renewables and other green tech, instead favoring companies using "brown technologies" — $8.2 trillion of holdings in oil and gas, coal mining, car manufacturing and electric power. 

Infografik Globale Investitionen im Energiesektor EN

Kemfert told DW that governments could instead use targeted stimulus packages to back climate-friendly fuels and infrastructure, and to encourage existing industries to switch over.

But, she stressed, these funds must be tied to conditions ensuring that they go toward "future-proof, climate-friendly and sustainable investments." 

However, it might be hard to sell that idea to lawmakers and bureaucrats in Brussels, who earlier this year were all set to begin realizing the EU's highly touted €1-trillion Green Deal over the next decade. Instead, they'll be doing whatever they can to soften the economic crash in their home countries.  

Business as usual or a new path? 

Even if climate change policies do get put on hold, psychologist van Bronswijk sees an overlap between the two crises that could prove useful to finding future climate solutions. 

She said both the outbreak and the climate crisis require us to slow down, work together, and focus on finding creative solutions to our common problems

In recent weeks we've seen health care systems strained to the point of collapse, a chaotic situation that reverberates in our overstressed ecosystems. 

"Crisis management in both cases relies very much on listening to scientific advice and acting thoughtfully and with solidarity," said van Bronswijk. 

Winfried Hoke, executive secretary at the European Climate Research Alliance, agrees.

The outbreak has exposed the "vulnerabilities of our society," said Hoke, suggesting that "more knowledge about the interdependencies of our systems and subsystems, as well as environmental and physical limits," would help the EU "understand and prepare for future emergencies" like the climate crisis. 

As for the United States, one of the world's worst polluters, Chatterjee of US Climate Action said that the priority once the outbreak is over, after health and well-being, would likely be some form of stimulus — and she thinks it could lead the US to greener pastures. 

"Anything is possible if it helps get us out of this emergency situation," she said. 

"Fossil fuel executives will have to either admit that they are not capitalists and that they require huge and regular government bailouts, or the market will take them down because their economics just don't work anymore."

Disclaimer: This article was updated to include more recent figures regarding stimulus efforts on the parts of the US government and the European Central Bank. 

Martin Kuebler Senior editor and reporter living in Brussels, with a focus on environmental issues