OPINION: To look for a silver lining in the cloud of human suffering and economic pain brought on by Covid-19 might seem callous.

But for many who believe sweeping structural and behavioural changes are needed to address some of the world’s most pressing problems — like climate change and environmental degradation — the current crisis is an opportunity.

Decarbonising the EU energy sector

When the European Commission proposed the European Green Deal last November, even advocates may have been sceptical about the odds that it would come close to achieving its goal to lay the groundwork, over the next five years, for the European Union to be “climate neutral” by 2050.

But the pandemic, and subsequent plummet in oil demand, have created upheaval in the oil and gas industry — and possibly accelerated the push to decarbonise the energy sector, one of the goals set out in the Green Deal.

As European Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson noted last week, the crisis “in a matter of months has produced changes that many people thought would take decades”.

In late May, the Commission unveiled a €750 billion ($840 billion) stimulus package to help mitigate the economic damage from Covid-19 and “pave the way to a sustainable future”, the European Parliament said.

Funding new energy technologies

Simson is hoping a sizeable portion of those funds will go to the sort of initiatives outlined in the Green Deal, including investment in new energy technologies.

She was speaking to reporters along with International Energy Agency executive director Fatih Birol, on the rollout of the IEA’s European Union 2020 Energy Policy Review.

The new report assesses progress the EU has made in cutting emissions over the past five years and makes recommendations for “boosting energy-sector action” in the region’s economic recovery and pursuit of low-carbon goals.

The IEA insists that much stronger policies than those now in place will be needed to meet those goals, and that the energy sector must be “at the heart” of decarbonisation efforts. The energy sector accounts for three-fourths of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions, including those from energy production and use.

Euros 'well spent'

“The (IEA) report will help us to make the case to our member states that every euro we spend on green recovery is a euro well spent, with multiple benefits at national levels,” Simson said.

The energy sector can help with “investments, jobs, economic growth, and energy and technology experts that can help Europe to get back on its feet”, she said.

Climate vs. job concerns

Birol noted that EU policymakers face the difficult task of sticking to low-carbon targets without appearing to favour climate over jobs in a struggling economy.

“We are very much concerned about climate change, but we do not live in a different planet,” he said, speaking for the IEA. “We know that people on the street are also very concerned about boosting economic growth and also for jobs.”

The current crisis may indeed hasten some positive changes. But disruptive events have been known to produce sweeping changes that are more worrying, including growing nationalism.

The European Green Deal assumes a great deal of cooperation among EU member states, and that could prove elusive when those states are under stress.

Still, it is encouraging to see pragmatic, long-term vision emerging in these dark times, and to see some big industry players welcomed — and willing — to be part of a sustainable recovery.

(This is an Upstream opinion article.)