Recovery after Covid-19: Let's make it green
The world is caught in an unprecedented crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic has swept across our planet, causing enormous human tragedy and economic losses. The focus is now on fighting the pandemic and its immediate consequences. The good news is that Thailand seems to have managed to contain the virus within reasonable limits. Also in Europe, the worst seems to be over. The focus is starting to shift towards how to rebuild our economies. The decision by the Thai government to activate phase 4 of its recovery plan forms an important milestone in this endeavour.
But while doing so, we should not lose sight of the fact that while all our attention was rightly focused on the Covid-19 crisis, other pre-existing crises did not miraculously disappear. Earlier this year, the 2020 Global Risks Report published by the World Economic Forum ranks the highest risks perceived by more than 750 global experts and decision-makers and for the first time, the top five global risks for the next decade were climate- and environment-related. We can expect that whenever the Covid-19 pandemic will subside, these issues will reclaim their position on top of the agenda. The economic slow-down of the last few months had a positive impact on the environment, with PM2.5 levels dwindling and turtles and fish reappearing on certain Thai islands. This is of course very positive, but unfortunately not a structural reversal. The same is true for the levels of CO2 emissions. Temporarily lower, but not for structural reasons. At the end of January, Antarctica experienced its first ever heat wave with temperatures above zero degrees for three consecutive days and nights. The summer of 2019 was the hottest ever in Europe, while in the Netherlands temperatures reached 40.7C, the hottest day on record. So if the climate crisis temporarily disappeared from the headlines, it did not from our planet.
Globally, trillions of dollars are being set aside to provide immediate relief to those most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and stimulate the recovery of the economy. This represents a unique opportunity to link the measures taken to address the immediate crisis of Covid-19 with the worsening climate crisis.
Eric Wiebes, the Dutch minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Policy and 16 of his EU colleagues stated: "We should withstand the temptations of short-term solutions in response to the present crisis that risk locking the EU in a fossil fuel economy for decades to come". Many others have expressed similar views. The European recovery package being discussed also reflects the ambition to support the EU climate policies and the European Green Deal.
The reasoning behind this linkage is that the recovery packages after all are financed by public funds, making it justifiable to include the public interest in the equation. For example, the Dutch parliament, debating a support of €2 to 4 billion to the national airline KLM, demanded from the government to ask for a cut in short flights that might as well be covered by train, and for an increase in the use of biofuels in return for this support. Similar debates about green recovery and building a better future are taking place in other capitals. These debates are spurred by climate considerations but also by sheer economic logic. In a recent report from the University of Oxford, the authors including Joseph Stiglitz and Nicholas Stern argue that green projects not only are better for the climate, but do also generate more jobs, deliver higher short-term rates of return and increased longer-term savings than more traditional fiscal stimulus measures.
This debate is important for all countries and even more so for countries highly vulnerable to climate change like the Netherlands and Thailand. According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2020 of Germanwatch, Thailand ranks 8th on the list of countries most affected by extreme weather events in the last two decades. In a recent study from Climate Central, it is stated that by 2050, more than 12 million people living in and around Bangkok will be below the average annual flood level because of sea level rise. The present drought affecting Thailand is the worst in 40 years and expected to cost 46 billion baht, according to Krungsri Bank Research. The design of the Covid-19 response package of almost 2 trillion baht offers therefore a great opportunity to link recovery to sustainability. The remarks of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha made at the opening of the recent session of Escap about the need to build back better point in the right direction.
We are all struggling with the choices to be made in the coming weeks and months on how to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. Our common endeavour should be to combine the short-term requirements for a quick economic recovery with the longer-term necessities of designing a more sustainable and climate-friendly development model.
Kees Rade is ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Thailand. The article coincides with the International Climate Change Day which falls June 21.