2020 will be remembered as the year the world hit pause on our daily lives and our economies in response to the coronavirus pandemic. As our governments, here in Europe and internationally, consider how to press play again, we must ensure that the economies we build back are more resilient, fairer and less destructive of our planet.
After coronavirus, there should be no return to ‘normal’ - because normal was already a crisis for many people and for the climate. Whatever happens, our societies will be profoundly different after this.
Bailing out people or big business?
Political leaders in Europe have struck a €500 billion relief deal to help crisis stricken countries reboot their economies – amongst dozens of other large-scale stimulus packages by governments. Our common future will be shaped by how this money is spent. It must not lock in climate breakdown.
People and our economies will need massive relief. But will the money address inequalities and help build the sustainable world we desperately need? Or, just like the last economic crisis, will it be big polluting businesses and CEOs that win out again?
Polluting and failing industries must not be bailed out
Fossil fuel companies - producing climate damaging coal, gas and oil - should not get government support in this crisis. The huge slump in energy demand has, astonishingly, driven some oil prices into a historic negative this week, pushing fossil fuel companies to the brink.
But this is an industry that is primarily responsible for destroying the climate, and which must be phased down in the coming decade. Part of the reason that they haven’t been leaving the oil in the ground is that even oil companies fear that the end of fossil fuels is in sight. They suspect they must sell their oil now before the world switches to clean energy. And yet still they make demands for bail-outs.
For governments to give handouts to keep this damaging industry artificially afloat now is an insult to taxpayers and the victims of these companies’ practices. We’ve already seen the companies’ wish-list being fulfilled in the United States with ‘backdoor bailouts’ in the form of tax relief, the gutting of environmental protections, and more. But most of Europe has committed to being carbon neutral by 2050. Coronavirus or not, now is not the time for financing more climate-polluting projects or companies.
Support should be given to the workers in these industries in the form of training and the creation of new jobs - but support cannot boost share prices, plump profits, or support executive bonuses. Our way out of this crisis is not to prop up the industries that will lead us into the next one.
What should be supported
Using this moment to give a massive boost to the clean energy transition could help transform our societies and recover our economies. The shift to a zero-carbon world requires finance to proceed fast enough to prevent climate breakdown.
Communities are helping each other out in this pandemic. At the level of apartment block, neighborhood, and city, let's encourage and support this powerful spirit and create funding for communities to rebuild together. Community energy can help do just that.
Building an efficient renewable energy system needs massive investment. From Germany to Spain there is already a plethora of hard-working community groups who have created community renewable projects. Many more are waiting to happen, but accessing finance is a common barrier. This could be overcome by unlocking stimulus funding for communities to build energy projects that create the clean energy we need, provide jobs, and at the same time revitalize local economies. It has been demonstrated that locally-owned wind projects bring eight times more local financial value to a community than internationally owned projects. Funds should be made directly available to local authorities - municipal involvement often improves effectiveness of community energy projects.
The EU has promised a ‘renovation wave’, to make Europe’s building stock highly energy efficient, but this needs to be funded with public funds. 97% of European buildings are inefficient, and renovating them will be expensive. But it has tremendous potential to improve lives – particularly the most vulnerable – and create green jobs, and cut carbon emissions. Damp and cold homes are damage health and wellbeing.
This is the right moment for governments to end making consumers pay for the energy transition through their energy bills - at a time when millions are struggling to pay these bills. Instead, economic stimulus packages could help finance renewable energy support schemes such as with well designed, progressive feed-in tariffs.
The International Energy Agency has warned that the coronavirus crisis could significantly slow the energy transition; we must avert this danger. Economic stimulus packages are a tool to get people back into work and get our lives going again. But instead of just pressing play again, let’s hit fast-forward to create the fair society and the green economy that we need.