Europe is implementing a green recovery: how will it shape our world? 

While it’s still too early to know exactly what impacts the coronavirus will have on our economies, our healthcare systems, and our political relationships, there’s no doubt that the effects will be with us for decades. While, as Justin Trudeau says, there is no return to normality until we have a vaccine, it is also becoming clear that the post-corona world will, in fact, create an entirely new “normal”.

Recovery Will be Green

Around the world, as lockdowns caused pollution levels to plummet, people watched through windows as their cities were transformed. Canal waters ran clear in Venice. The Himalayas are visible in parts of India where they haven’t been seen in decades. Endangered species show up in urban neighbourhoods. The largest hole in the ozone closed in April 2020, and air pollution in Europe is down by 40%. There are some estimates that the number of lives worldwide saved by improved air and water quality, is actually equal to the Covid-19 death toll to date.

Environmentalists do not want economic recovery to mean a return to damaging policies and practices, and more and more leaders are heeding the call.

The IMF this week pointed out that, with oil prices at a record low, and many businesses seeking bailouts, there is no better time to ensure that a recovering economy is sustainable and supports a resilient climate. For the IMF, this means green finance and smart carbon pricing.

In April, Germany and Britain co-chaired a virtual climate summate, where the environmental ministers of more than 30 countries discussed how coronavirus recovery could simultaneously tackle big problems, like inequality and climate change. Representatives from Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa agreed that there is an urgent need to create jobs, but that those jobs need to be in sustainable industries, green infrastructure, and in designing the cities and economies of the future.

Universal Basic Income

Universal basic income was once a fringe, “socialist” idea, but now, it seems, the time has come. As a result of coronavirus, Spain is implementing a universal basic income, and they don’t intend this to be a short-term, emergency bailout – they see it as part of their long-term economic policy. Around the world, from the New York Times to Euronews to the World Economic Forum, many are saying that it’s key to a long-term recovery. The idea is gaining headway even in the conservative Middle East.

While many people balk at the idea of giving away taxpayer money “for free”, there are a few compelling arguments that are gaining widespread support. The most popular reasons for UBI are:

  1. People require social welfare services from the government. Particularly during the Covid-19 crisis, when millions of people lost their jobs or were unable to work, they rely on the government for assistance. However, the administrative cost of such programs is extremely high: there are enormous bureaucracies involved in applying for such programs, administering such programs, and excluding people who don’t qualify. Some think that it would be faster, more efficient, and perhaps even cost-equivalent to simply give people the money without the massive administration process. 
  2. Governments have a need to create jobs. Governments spend enormous resources creating and preserving jobs in order to keep their citizens employed and earning an income. In some instances, the need to create jobs leads to support of regressive industries like fossil fuels, large taxpayer bailouts, and the creation of tax havens. Instead of spending taxpayer money on job creation, the money could be applied instead to a universal basic income. 
  3. The progress of technology makes many jobs obsolete. Technology represents enormous potential for the automation of labor, but many governments resist embracing these advances in the name of preserving jobs. But the truth is, automation makes many tasks faster, simpler, and much safer, and is slowly overtaking more and more traditional jobs. In Japan, where an aging population requires more services with a shrinking workforce, the country has turned its attention away from job creation and toward automation. It’s an example that that many other countries will eventually follow, and a universal basic income allows jobs to be automated without furthering inequality.

Changing the Face of Urban Transit

All over Europe, an unexpected consequence of coronavirus is that many cities are rethinking their relationships with the automobile. While Paris and Brussels are moving forward with increasing restrictions on cars in the city, they are now being joined by Berlin, Rome, and Milan.

There is a steep correlation between poor air quality and Covid-19 mortality rates, and Milan had some of the worst air quality in Italy. When faced with the dilemma between packing more people into potentially virus-laden mass transit, or trying to find space to accommodate more private automobiles, the city chose a third option: cycling and walking. In summer 2020, 35 kilometers of urban roads will be re-designated for pedestrians and cyclists, and cars must adhere to a slower speed limit and yield right of way to non-vehicular traffic, similar to changes being implemented in Brussels this month.

This change in transit methods is part of a sweeping initiative to change transit patterns altogether: Milan wants to reduce congestion by altering the patterns of urban life by encouraging remote work from home, and by staggering key transit demand times through offsetting and prolonging school hours, store hours, and other peak transit times. By introducing longer time frames with more flexibility for workers and students, Milan hopes to “flatten the curve” of transit demands for years to come, and reduce the risks of contagion through congestion.

If coronavirus recovery means more lifestyles, landscapes, and economies that are progressive and sustainable, the travel/transport industries and fossil fuel industries will be forever changed. And industries that proved crucial during the coronavirus lockdowns, like pharmaceuticals, home and personal hygiene, and the food industry, will be doing well for decades to come.