The COP26 climate talks scheduled to be held in Scotland this November will not take place due to the coronavirus pandemic. But like the talks themselves, Europe’s aggressive push to reduce its carbon emissions has been merely postponed, not canceled.
Despite the vast economic challenges and immediate public health crisis stemming from COVID-19, European companies and political institutions are restating the importance of tackling the climate emergency.
While Europe’s immediate financial response to the crisis has been about income protection and bolstering health services, any longer-term plan to counter the recession could well have climate change at the heart of it. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the EU was beginning the work of fleshing out the €1 trillion ($1.08 trillion) European Green Deal.
Organizers of the COP26 Glasgow summit have stressed that the decision to postpone is a logistical one. Governments would struggle to make a meaningful contribution in the space of seven months while also fighting the outbreak and preparing an economic recovery on a grand scale. The conference will take place in 2021 in Glasgow, although a date has not yet been set.
“COVID-19 is the most urgent threat facing humanity today, but we cannot forget that climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity over the long term,” said Patricia Espinosa, U.N. climate change executive secretary, in a press statement announcing the postponement of the talks.
“Soon, economies will restart. This is a chance for nations to recover better, to include the most vulnerable in those plans, and a chance to shape the 21st-century economy in ways that are clean, green, healthy, just, safe and more resilient,” she added.
Europe digs in for the Green Deal
Even in Europe, there are calls to drop carbon reductions from the agenda in the wake of the crisis. The Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Andrej Babiš, has said it is time to “forget about the Green Deal.” Officials from Poland have suggested the EU emissions trading scheme should be ditched or Poland should be exempted, in order to allow all resources to be targeted toward the coronavirus response.
But the early signs indicate that Europe’s momentum on climate action will continue and perhaps even accelerate. The European Council, on which Czech Prime Minister Babiš sits, has approved a statement (PDF) on the pandemic including the role of the “green transition” as part of an as-yet-unwritten “comprehensive recovery plan.”
The EU, which sets its budget every seven years, had yet to agree on a new one before the virus took hold in Italy — set to be the first such European budget without the U.K. involved. But Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, has indicated that the Green Deal will remain a cornerstone of her presidency.
“The billions and trillions being spent today to avert a greater disaster are an investment in our future protection and they will bind generations,” von der Leyen said in an open letter published April 4. “This is why the money in our next budget must be invested in a smart and sustainable manner.”
“Crucially, we need to invest strategically in our future, for example for innovative research, for digital infrastructure, for clean energy, for a smart circular economy, for transport systems of the future,” von der Leyen wrote. “A Marshall Plan of this nature will help build a more modern, sustainable and resilient Europe. This is the Union that I believe can emerge from this — just as it did after every crisis in our history.”
Another positive sign came from Spain, which submitted its national climate plan to the EU last week, several months late. Spain is targeting 74 percent of its electricity to come from renewables by 2030. Trade body WindEurope expects this to translate to 2.2 gigawatts of wind a year. That’s in addition to the 3 gigawatts of annual solar capacity forecast during the same period.
Spanish utility giant Iberdrola signaled its intention to stick to its own plans to reach carbon-neutrality by 2050.
The company said last week it would be upping its investment in power projects, including a healthy pipeline of wind and solar projects in Spain, across Europe and in the U.S. Record investment and a no-holds-barred recruitment drive would “turbo-charge” the economy, CEO Ignacio Galán told the firm’s (remote) annual general meeting.
One important question is whether Europe’s oil giants will back away from their climate-change commitments given the crash of oil prices. Oil companies around the world have begun a phase of deep cost-cutting.
Again, the signs are encouraging. BP, for one — which has the ambition of being net-zero by 2050, including the emissions from its products — has already recommitted to its greener focus. Indeed, having ditched its “Beyond Petroleum” mantra, the company may now be looking “Beyond Profit.”
Writing on LinkedIn, recently appointed CEO Bernard Looney reiterated that BP would stand behind its new objectives. “This crisis has helped make clear that the world in which the sole objective of a company’s purpose is to maximize profit is no longer acceptable,” he said.
“People talk about ‘the art of the possible.’ […] The current crisis is redefining ‘possible’ day by day,” Looney wrote. “We should reflect on that next time someone says that tackling climate change is too difficult, or too costly. It is no coincidence that BP’s purpose is ‘reimagining energy for people and our planet.'”