Q&A: The promise of a green COVID-19 recovery

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Dr. Frank Rijsberman delivering a congratulatory remark at a workshop on building capacity to support developing countries to address climate change in Seoul. Photo by: GGGI.

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Will COVID-19 be an opportunity for improved climate action? With talk of the potential for green stimulus packages and greener economies, Frank Rijsberman, director-general at the Global Green Growth Institute, warns that an economic crisis could mean the opposite.

“Obviously, climate colleagues and environmentalists emphasize the opportunity side — the fact that this could be a stimulus for an accelerated green transition and potentially more climate action,” he said. “While we certainly line up with all those voices and see those opportunities, there's also a huge risk of a collapsing economy, which could lead to no more funding for climate action as well.”

At the time of publication over 3,117,700 people had tested positive for the virus. Over 217,00 people have died. Businesses have also closed and millions have lost their jobs and main source of income.

Simultaneously addressing climate action and COVID-19 via programs that retrain people and provide green jobs in a green economy could be the way to go, Rijsberman said.

Speaking to Devex, he explained how COVID-19 and climate action are linked, what can be done to improve both situations, and what the ideal green economy package looks like.

“What was called a ‘just transition’ under climate change can be reinvented as COVID recovery stimulus.”

— Frank Rijsberman, director-general, Global Green Growth Institute

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you think COVID-19 will impact efforts to tackle climate change?

It’s very clear from all our discussions and from the general news that, following the initial public health crisis, there’s going to be an unprecedented economic crisis that will affect direct income and employment. But as the World Food Programme executive director [David Beasley] also shared, it will affect supply-chains, and therefore food supply-chains, and may lead to all kinds of predictable but nasty consequences like famines and so on.

Then, for us, we see a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there are many voices [saying] — and we don't disagree — that there’s an opportunity in the recovery to “green” all the stimulus packages. Probably one of the more positive responses comes out of [South] Korea, where we've had elections recently and the governing party won with an overriding victory. They put a very strong new green deal in their election manifesto that includes zero carbon by 2050 and no more financing for coal, so those are the positive signs.

At the same time, we’re quite worried that all these big stimulus packages in the developed countries will take the money away from development aid, and possibly even from climate action. It's an extremely risky time.

Could the situation present opportunities for improved climate resilience and response?

What does COVID-19 mean for climate action?
With economies on pause and public finance flowing like never before, the pandemic is creating both opportunities and risks for global climate action.

There’ll have to be pretty massive spending to get the economy back on track. I hope that spending is directed in the right way — not directed at resurrecting the “brown economy,” but seen as an opportunity to invest in “green.”

For example, the tourism industry in the Pacific Islands is in deep trouble, so we're developing proposals and seeking interest from donors and governments. These say, “we need short-term income for the people who have become unemployed. Rather than give them simply an unemployment cheque, let's give them an opportunity to get retrained in the green economy.

Let's use that freed-up labor for simple things like beach cleaning or other green infrastructure that can be developed. If we need to provide support for businesses that are in trouble, let's then use that not as a simple grant, but as money used to green the sector through [for example] more rapid installation of renewable energy.”

What's the role of GGGI in dealing with COVID-19 at the intersection of climate change?

We’re a key adviser to governments who are now scratching their heads and saying “how do we come up with green stimulus packages?” This year, in more than 20 countries, we have helped governments come up with more ambitious nationally determined contributions, and these same governments are beginning to ask us, “how can you help us to formulate a green recovery package?”

We are doing webinars with our government counterparts, working with other organizations in the space, and we’re part of the Green Growth Knowledge Platform. A bunch of organizations there are jointly developing a white paper policy brief on what we think the best approaches to green these stimulus packages are, combining COVID response with climate action.

The primary change due to COVID-19 is a strong increase in the interest for green jobs and employment, both short-term and long-term. We had already realized that green employment is a key thing, so [we] started, a number of years ago, to look at green jobs.

We have programs on green entrepreneurship and we’re finding that there’s suddenly a rapid increase in those programs. We're finding donors that say, “yes, let's invest in small islands in green entrepreneurship programs.” We already had those, but that means we have them ready to expand. If we can show that employment can go hand-in-hand with investment in renewable energy, that’s a pretty powerful argument for those greening their recovery plans.

“During the refugee crisis a few years ago, we saw quite a few countries cut their aid budgets to deal with a refugee crisis in Europe … my call to action is not to do that.

What do you think a green COVID-19 recovery package should look like?

Clearly, there’s going to be a big element to do with short-term income for people that have been laid off or are unemployed — the social safety net — that’s ideally combined with not just giving short-term income support, but creating new green jobs. What was called a “just transition” under climate change can be reinvented as COVID recovery stimulus. That's a strong link.

People were already worried about people losing their jobs as part of climate action, now they're losing their jobs from the COVID-19 pandemic. So, if we come up with strong programs that help retrain people and provide green jobs in the green economy, then that is where climate action and COVID-19 align very well.

In addition, there are some elements that are the same as before such as increasing energy efficiency, managing waste better, and electric mobility. All these same elements are still there, but we’re now looking at them through the lens of COVID-19 recovery, which specifically means income for people and green employment opportunities. In some cases, it means looking at the same projects a bit differently.

How would you recommend other organizations working to tackle climate change adapt to the current situation?

They have to rethink their programs to see how they can be not only climate action relevant, but also be COVID-19 responsive. All the things I mentioned are also relevant for all development nongovernmental organizations; to use the money that was already in the pipeline for development assistance with an environment or climate label and help it become a COVID-19 relevant or responsive program.

What would your call to action be for governments and NGOs at this time?

The first priority is dealing with the health emergency. The second priority will be to deal with the economic crisis, but then not to forget all those people who are super vulnerable to this COVID-19 crisis — all the particularly disadvantaged socioeconomic groups in developing countries.

During the refugee crisis a few years ago, we saw quite a few countries cut their aid budgets to deal with a refugee crisis in Europe. I’m most worried that this will be repeated, so my call to action is not to do that, but to realize — in addition to dealing with the crises at home — we will still have a responsibility to support the vulnerable groups in developing countries.

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About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.