Climate vs coronavirus: Why massive stimulus plans could represent missed opportunities

When the US Congress passed a US$2-trillion economic-stimulus plan on 27 March, $25 billion in economic aid for passenger airlines was just a small piece of it. But for environmentalists and their allies in Washington DC, it was a setback.

The airline industry is reeling from travel bans and government lockdowns designed to contain the new coronavirus: more than 1.1 million flights have been cancelled globally up to the end of June, and the industry is projecting revenue losses of more than $250 billion this year. Democrats in the US House of Representatives fought for the rescue package to include a provision that would have required airlines to cut emissions to 50% below 2005 levels by 2050 — a target that the industry has already committed to voluntarily. But environmental considerations were swept aside this week as lawmakers focused on short-term economic relief.

Holding the industry to its word would have been a big deal, says Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group based in New York City. “I think the public is going to demand that going forward,” she adds.

But debate is just beginning over how best to drive economic recovery after the pandemic and whether climate change will factor into such plans. The pandemic will certainly affect the climate, just as it has affected all sectors of society. Scientists have already documented reductions in air pollution in China, Italy and New York City because of restrictions on human activity, and researchers are now forecasting that 2020 could see the first sharp declines in global greenhouse-gas emissions since the 2008 recession.

The ensuing economic crisis could linger for a few years, reducing energy demand and enabling renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to gain ground, says Glen Peters, research director at the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo. If governments play their cards right, 2019 could end up being the year that global emissions peaked, he says.

But a key question will be whether governments are able to advance climate goals as they roll out economic-stimulus plans — and if so, to what extent. “It is not as if building solar panels is going to put the tourism or restaurant industry back to work,” Peters says.

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