BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Government efforts to help economies recover from the coronavirus pandemic could also tackle inequality and climate change through investment in energy-smart buildings, electric vehicles and other green measures, officials and economists said on Monday.
As 30 nations joined a two-day virtual climate dialogue, co-chaired by Germany and Britain, policy makers stressed that spending to head off a global depression due to COVID-19 shutdowns should not restart growth built on planet-heating fossil fuels.
“The climate crisis has not disappeared just because we are currently focusing on another acute crisis,” said German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze.
The coronavirus outbreak had helped many around the world understand what it was like to live through a major crisis, she told journalists.
“I believe that in the future people will be more willing to do something against the long-term environmental crisis that we will be faced with, if we don’t act,” she added.
The world may not yet have a vaccine for COVID-19 but it knows how to stave off climate change, she said.
Measures such as shifting to renewable, clean wind and solar power are “available, affordable and they make our lives better”, she noted.
The German government said the Petersberg Climate Dialogue would focus on how to organise a green economic recovery after the emergency phase of the coronavirus pandemic.
The dialogue would also look at how countries could push forward with climate change action despite the postponement of the COP26 U.N. conference until 2021, German officials said.
As the dialogue got underway on Monday, ministers from Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America emphasised in recorded video statements the need for cooperation between countries in dealing both with the coronavirus pandemic and a warming planet.
Some also stressed the need to support the most vulnerable countries and communities, whose poverty puts them most at risk from health and climate threats.
“The COVID-19 crisis has further exposed the unacceptable levels of inequality in our societies, and we need to work even harder to level the playing field,” said Rwandan Environment Minister Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya.
“But we must resist the temptation to revert to or ramp up polluting industries as part of a plan to create jobs,” she added.
Eminent British economist Nicholas Stern said the first priority for governments should be to protect employment and prevent massive job losses as businesses large and small struggle to cope with weeks of closure.
But as economies begin to move towards recovery - perhaps through the summer and autumn - it would be time to shift to supporting the “jobs of the future”, while encouraging carbon-heavy energy and airline companies to adopt cleaner ways of operating, he said.
“There is so much we can do on energy efficiency, building electric road and rail programmes and infrastructure, redesigning our cities, looking after ... our forests and our land,” said the London School of Economics professor.
“There is so much we can do quickly.”
Businesses based on fossil-fuel use - from oil extraction to petrol cars - will not provide secure or cost-effective jobs if governments stick to the Paris Agreement goal to cut carbon emissions to net-zero by mid-century, he added.
Global carbon emissions from fossil fuels and industry are likely to fall 4-11% this year as a result of economic damage from the pandemic, scientists working on the Climate Action Tracker project calculated in an analysis released Monday.
They said emissions might drop in 2021 as well.
But they warned that if governments do not roll out low-carbon development strategies - or if they fail to implement existing climate policies - in the face of the coming downturn, emissions could rebound and even exceed previous projections by 2030, despite lower economic growth in the coming decade.
Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, said that in a post-pandemic world, it would be essential to aim for growth that is sustainable and incorporates workers who have been left out by globalisation.
She called for a new integrated economic approach with climate change action and social protection for the financially vulnerable at its centre, including a global fund to support the poor.
“If we don’t do this now... then when the next crisis hits - and it’s most likely more climate devastation - then that resilience is simply not there,” she said.
Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org/climate