The same socially oriented approach must be taken to defeat the coronavirus and, over the longer run, stop climate catastrophe.
Covid-19 has revealed some unexpected things about humanity. One of them is that society can adapt rapidly to a common threat. It may not come easily and it requires much more anticipation, but we can do it. At the same time, the virus has dramatically highlighted only a fraction of the damaging consequences that climate change could have.
Many of the changes of recent weeks also point to how we might move towards a more sustainable way of living. Yet a few European Union leaders have used the crisis as an opportunity to suggest ditching the EU’s Green Deal and abandoning efforts to fight climate change, for example through the Emissions Trading System.
The European Trade Union Confederation fiercely rejects any idea that workers’ jobs can be saved in the long term by reviving outdated, polluting industries and practices. Good social and health protection, economic recovery and preserving the environment are the three mutually-dependent pillars that must form the foundation for EU action in the wake of Covid-19.
During this crisis, people have tended to put their faith in science—even more than in politicians. All the more reason to trust the science of climate change and listen to the calls for a radical, people-centred transition to a carbon-neutral economy.
The virus has demonstrated with brutal force how austerity has starved social security and health systems of resources, while employment policies have encouraged precarious work which leaves people even more vulnerable as the lockdown affects the economy. Governments have eventually been forced to recognise the need to protect workers—through salary support, paid sick leave and unemployment benefits, for example—and to invest in essential public services. The same approach is required to implement a fair and just transition to a green economy, avoiding massive job losses and damage to communities.
Measures which seemed utopian a month ago are now a reality. Huge amounts of money are being invested in saving EU economies, with the restrictions of the Stability and Growth Pact eased. Germany’s recovery plan matches the estimated expenditure on the entire Green Deal. So funds exist, and the same approach should secure even greater investment in a carbon-neutral economy, offering social protection and security to the workers and communities affected by decarbonisation.
Countries quick to respond have handled the virus more effectively. The same approach is needed for climate policies. The difference is that borders cannot be closed to counter climate change. The sooner we co-operate to act globally, the less society will suffer.
This crisis cannot be resolved bychannelling money into financial systems—unlike in 2008—or to shareholders. Aid must go directly and urgently to workers, communities and businesses, to save jobs. The same approachis needed to achieve a green transition. We cannot go back to ‘business as usual’. Recovery plans must not reinvest in dirty, polluting industries but promote well-paid jobs in sectors that reduce carbon emissions. Public money from taxpayers (including workers) must be invested in saving jobs and saving the planet.
There are clearlinks between health and the environment. Many scientists agree that climate change and the loss of biodiversity can create the conditions for illnesses to spread. Long-term exposure to air pollution contributes to chronic lung and heart conditions that make viruses like Covid-19 even more dangerous. Rising temperatures could have a direct effect on the resilience of, for example, haemorrhagic fever and the Zika virus. Biodiversity can act as a buffer against the spread of pathogens, so acting today to protect the environment and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions will also protect us against potential health risks in the future.
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The virus threat is not like the financial crisis, but if recovery plans do not include strong social and environmental policies we will have learned nothing from 2008. The world is experiencing a major decline in greenhouse-gas emissions, as then. Yet 12 years ago the post-crisis measures led to a decade of austerity, wage stagnation and a massive rise in emissions, accelerating climate change without any benefits for working people. This time, recovery measures must be socially and environmentally progressive.
The ETUC renews its demand for a socially fair and just transition to a sustainable, green economy. Covid-19 has shown how dependent the EU is on globalised supply chains—not only in health—and how it suffers from the lack of an effective industrial policy. The crisis has highlighted starkly the difficulties facing the weaker economies and the more energy-dependent regions, hampered by a lack of European solidarity.
The Green Deal is a good starting point. But without a massive investment plan to tackle the social consequences of Covid-19 and the transition towards a carbon-neutral economy it will never get off the ground.
To fight the virus and save lives, European populations have accepted unprecedented constraints on their everyday freedoms and way of life. This carries risks for democracy and cannot last indefinitely. In the long term, measures which are based on scientific recommendations yet lack the democratic consent of the public will not be accepted.
Equally, the challenge of climate change requires the large-scale engagement of populations. Governments cannot afford to escape democratic procedures and must ensure public consultation and the full involvement of such stakeholders as trade unions. A just social and environmental transition needs to secure trust among workers and communities. Without their support, climate-protection policies will fail.
Across Europe and around the world, thousands are dying in the most painful circumstances as a result of Covid-19. Society owes it to them to act on the evidence of experience and work urgently to create a fairer, more equal and greener future.