In the months since the coronavirus pandemic effectively shut down large parts of the world, the changes to the environment have become one of the most visible backdrops to life under lockdown. Suddenly blue skies have provided a welcome setting for more varieties of birds, whose songs can now be heard without the roar of airplanes and car traffic. From Istanbul to New Delhi, vistas reappeared that no one alive remembered seeing. Animals started exploring what had once been their usual habitats, with flamingoes venturing in Mumbai, deer clambering through East London, and all manner of animals strolling into cities where no one had ever seen them outside of a zoo.
But beyond the cleaner air and pastoral scenes drifting into normally bustling urban landscapes, a new and complicated political reality has emerged for environmental groups and green parties, which now face a world with upended priorities. As countries emerge from the shutdowns that aimed to slow the contagion, plans to revive economies at all costs have soared to the top of the political agenda in country after country. In many cases, accepting economic sacrifices for the sake of the environment looks less appealing and less politically viable than it was before the coronavirus seized the planet.
Behind those indelible images of curious animals in new surroundings is hard data about the pandemic’s environmental and economic impact. The International Energy Agency predicts that global energy demand will fall steeply in 2020. A projected drop of 6 percent—seven times the size of the drop during the 2008 financial crisis—would reverse the past five years of demand growth. Not all of that decline in energy use is due to the virus; some of it is because the United States had a warmer-than-average winter—perhaps related to climate change—which required less heating oil and other fuel earlier in the year.
But most of the drop in energy demand is due to the pandemic, which has driven down consumption of almost all forms of fuel. Demand for coal could drop by 8 percent this year, according to the IEA, the biggest decrease since World War II. Yet demand for renewable energy has stayed mostly unchanged, because energy grids prioritize use of renewable fuels, according to the IEA, partly because of the lower “marginal cost” for wind, solar and hydroelectric generation compared to traditional fossil fuel power plants.
In some respects, it might look like an environmentalist’s dream come true. With the air cleaner than anyone could remember, some have wondered if this booster shot might strengthen the Earth against its human foes. But a lasting victory would require sustained political action, and that’s where the good news ends.
Demand will promptly snap back, unless countries take deliberate measures to prevent it. But the economic damage of the pandemic is making that even more difficult than before. COVID-19 might not have emerged and spread as fast were it not for the activities of human beings, but that kind of reasoned analysis is unlikely to sway legislation until the economic crisis has passed.
For now, green parties will have to contend with the uncomfortable fact that politicians and many of their constituents tend to be more willing to fight for the environment when they are enjoying a measure of economic security and prosperity and feel they can afford to make changes that could increase their cost of living. That’s the perennial uphill battle for environmentalists, or for anyone trying to convince the public to place grave long-term concerns ahead of immediate worries.
A new and complicated political reality has emerged for environmental groups and green parties, which now face a world with upended priorities.
Making matters even more complicated, the collapse in demand for fossil fuels has led to the freefall of oil and natural gas prices. As a result, the price differential between dirty and clean fuels has widened, which can further reduce the appeal of renewable energy.
On top of these steepening obstacles, green parties now face another challenge: convincing the public that the environment should remain a top concern when jobs have disappeared and the future looks so uncertain. In some places, public opinion surveys point to a political realignment in progress. In Germany, polls show the Greens losing altitude after recent gains. Greens were the choice of 26 percent of German voters a year ago, down to 17 percent now.
The beneficiary of the shift is Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centrist Christian Democratic Union, just one sign of how governing parties have generally fared well amid the pandemic. In the Netherlands, for example, the Greens have seen a slight drop in their polling, but Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, or VVD, has soared from 21 percent support at the start of the pandemic to 37 percent now, a remarkable rise in a Dutch field crowded with a dozen parties.
In Germany, the loss of support for the Greens is producing stark results. With the country facing what is predicted to be its worst recession since World War II, a new coal plant just opened in the city of Datteln, in western Germany’s industrial heartland. Activists had hoped to see a groundswell of opposition, but the virus has prevented mass protests, and many people are otherwise preoccupied.
Not all is lost. Government bailouts for Air France-KLM include strict sustainability clauses, which the combined Franco-Dutch airline says it is committed to respecting. In thanking the Dutch government for the help, KLM’s president and CEO, Pieter Elbers, noted that the company is “weathering a storm of unparalleled magnitude.” But he didn’t let the scale of the challenge diminish his stated commitment to environmental goals, declaring, “KLM intends to lead the field in its ambitions and to play a pioneering role in sustainability.”
Then, there’s the possibility that the most egregious abuses will produce a backlash. In the United States, President Donald Trump has used the pandemic to keep bulldozing through environmental regulations. Trump issued an executive order last week directing federal agencies to waive environmental regulations in order to expedite infrastructure projects and accelerate the “economic recovery from the national emergency.”
The initial impression that the devastating coronavirus pandemic might have one silver lining, if it proved to be a boon for the environment, looks more like a temporary phenomenon. If anything, the pandemic has created new political challenges for those seeking to make long-term changes to the way human beings interact with the planet.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is a regular contributor to CNN and The Washington Post. Her WPR column appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.