„We need to ensure that while recovering from the economic and health crisis we do not increase our emissions back to the previous trends”, says Joanna Flisowska, head of climate and energy unit at Greenpeace Poland.
Aleksandra Kuśnierkiewicz, EURACTIV.pl: The European Green Deal would be a challenging agenda even in normal times. What are some of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis to the Green Deal?
Joanna Flisowska: First of all, I think it’s very important to know that we need to look at the European Green Deal as an opportunity and as a crucial part of the solution to get out of the crisis that was caused by the COVID-19 but also the climate crisis. Also, it is very important to know that we can’t afford to go back to business as usual as it was before COVID-19. We cannot go back to the way it used to be. We need to build back much better because we are not only in the COVID related crisis, but we are also in the climate crisis, to which we actually need a much stronger response. We need to change the system in which we operate, move away from the constant growth concept and prioritize the systemic change, the degrowth actually. Obviously, on the way to that, there are going to be some challenges and definitely there are also some challenges ahead of the European Green Deal agenda. I think one of those challenges is being fooled by the seeming decrease of the emission that was taking place last year. We need to ensure that while recovering from the economic and health crisis we do not increase our emissions back to the previous trends. Also, the big risk that I see for the European Green Deal Agenda is that some of the sectoral policies were pushed further down the line due to other priorities. Moreover, many member states are now occupied with other issues, like the health system, etc. So, the climate crisis, which might not be as tangible at the moment as other problems, might be at risk of getting pushed further down the line when it comes to the priorities for the member states, the decision makers, the society in general. So, we need to have strong voices and actors that will be driving the discussion and, more importantly, the action forward so that the European Green Deal is in the centre of the recovery after the pandemic.
You mentioned that we need strong voices to lead the change. On that note, do you think that the European Union representatives in charge of the Green Deal rose to the challenge of the pandemic and of the crisis that it cost, and, if yes, how so?
I think that I’m gonna be a bit critical when it comes to assessing the actions of the EU representatives in regards to the environmental climate agenda throughout the last year when they had to deal with it next to the pandemic. I had expected more from the EU representatives when it comes to moving the Green Deal forward. In my opinion, a lot of actions and negotiations were delayed throughout the last year. What is worse, we are now seeing a risk of watering down some of the developments and policies that were already endangered. For example, it looks like there are now some bad pushes regarding the green taxonomy rules. I’m very concerned about the EU decision making course bending under pressure from the fossil fuel lobby, especially the fossil gas lobby. But I would just hope that after this very difficult year for all of us the European Commission, but also our leaders, would step up to the challenge of implementing the Green Deal and of taking the action needed to combat the climate crisis.
In light of the challenges that we’ve discussed, do you think that the post COVID-19 policies response needs to follow the same strategy proposed by the Green Deal as before or something needs to change?
I think that the Green Deal is a good start, which gives us a clear direction where we are going. But the thing is we need to go further, we need to have a policy response that is stronger and bolder, and that is adequate to the climate and environmental crisis we are in right now. So, we need to start discussing how to go beyond that, how to reach a real system change that would move us away from the paradigm of constant growth. Instead, we have to think how to secure a degrowth of our economy, while assuring the safety for the citizens; how to, at the same time, ensure a better protection of the environment, and how to reduce the greenhouse gas emission.
Now let’s have a look at the Just Transition Fund, which is the instrument of the European Green Deal. How did COVID-19 recovery programme influence the Just Transition Fund? Do you think that the money will be effective in persuading coal-dependent regions to embrace renewables – especially in the COVID-19 context – and the economic recovery that is ahead of us?
When it comes to the Just Transition Fund and its role in persuading the coal-dependent regions to move away from coal and to embrace renewables, I think that it has definitely a very important role and it’s an incentive for the regions to think about how they see their future and to prepare their just transition plans. Because, they are required to prepare those plans to be eligible to get the funding. It is very important that now the regions have the incentive to really prepare the plans, to think about the vision for their regions in the next decades to come, and also to bring different actors to the discussions. These are not only plans that are prepared by the local authorities. They are prepared in consultation with civil society, trade unions, workers, local communities, etc. From this point of view, I think that it is really important that we finally have the Just Transition Fund. But what I would also like to emphasise is that we cannot forget that there is this hole in the EU Budget that should be used for actions that are in line with the transformation towards carbon neutrality of the countries and of the regions as well. A lot of the voices highlight that the Just Transition Fund is not big enough and it’s true. But, at the same time, the regions can use the EU funding they get in general to finance the transformation towards carbon neutrality. So when the regions are preparing their plans on how to spend the EU funds – especially the Cohesion Fund – they should look comprehensively and use it all in line with their plans on how to transition away from coal and already think ahead on how to move towards a climate neutral economy.
Do you think that – with the COVID-19 context and with the crisis that it cost – there is a high chance for the regions and municipalities to actually prioritize the green transition and the green economy, knowing how the economy itself has been affected? Do you think there is hope for that?
I think that there is hope. I certainly do have this hope and I think that there are also good reasons and arguments for that. When we are talking about the green recovery and transition towards climate neutrality, it’s not only about how to end things like burning coal and how to decrease emissions. This is also about new investments, new jobs, new research, etc. So, this is all part of the solution of how to get out of the COVID crisis and also the economic crisis. Investments towards renewables, energy efficiency, energy saving – these are all answers to these crises that we are in, both from the economic point of view but also from the climate point of view.
Let’s go further and look at the Reconstruction Fund, which is the European Union’s response to the corona crisis. Over 23 bln euros in subsidies and over 34 bln euros in loans are to go to Poland from this source. In order to use these funds, each state must prepare its own national recovery plan. What do you think about the current state of the recovery plan? Is it transparent enough? Is it efficient enough? And which sectors of the economy will receive the most help?
Unfortunately, my very short answer to your questions would be no. In Poland so far the work on the national recovery plan was not transparent at all – it is very intransparent. There is no draft of the plan that would be available to the public. There are no details about what is in this governmental plan. We know that the government is working on something, but we don’t know what the priorities are. And it’s also unclear who is really working on it, what ministries are working on it, in what kind of working groups, etc. Obviously, that means there is no proper civil society involvement in the process right now. So, unfortunately, what we can judge is only the very vague and limited communication from the government. At the moment, I would say that the national recovery plan for Poland does not look very hopeful to lead to a truly green recovery, and I am afraid that it would be another lost opportunity for Poland.
Finally, do you think that the urgency of the pandemic has taught us any lessons on the importance of tackling climate change? I know it’s a big question, but what’s your take on that?
I think that there are some lessons that we can take out from last year. What it showed us is that when we actually feel the urgency we can take bold, decisive actions, we can find the funds we didn’t know that existed, we can change our habits, we can change the way that we operate. The pandemic showed us that the change is possible when we actually need the urgency, when we are forced to change. It also showed us how strongly the environmental crisis is linked with health, economics, etc. We need to remember that part of the reason why we have the pandemic and why we are at a risk of having to deal with other pandemics in future is also the environmental crisis that we are in now. It’s because of the loss of biodiversity that we are seeing right now all around the world. This shows us that we cannot focus our efforts on one issue at a time. We need to work comprehensively on tackling all of the crises. And I would also hope that this pandemic showed us that prevention is better so that we will not wait until the actual climate catastrophe happens before we realize that we need to act. I’m just really hoping that this last year will fuel more urgency into the climate action.
The project is co-financed by the Governments of Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia through Visegrad Grants from International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe.