The corona pandemic caught our society off guard. That is one reason for the scale of the crisis. This makes it all the more important to learn from the current situation, not least in the area of climate and energy policy. In what follows, I discuss the lessons we can draw from the crisis in reflections clustered around the terms vulnerability, resilience and solidarity.
Vulnerability: Climate change is making our society increasingly fragile
Our highly efficient and interconnected global economic system has brought Europe unprecedented levels of prosperity in past decades. The corona pandemic has revealed just how vulnerable that system is and how quickly the assumed stability of our society can be upended. The coronavirus has spread rapidly across the globe, with wide-ranging effects that go far beyond the health system. It has triggered a severe economic crisis with fiscal impacts thatwill constrain government capacities to act for many years to come.
The corona pandemic has revealed that we cannot afford to ignore the warnings of scientists. Triggered by the SARS crisis in the early 2000s, health experts have issued warnings and scenarios of pending pandemics for over a decade. But they did not lead to precautionary measures or contingency plans that would have shielded us better against the current fallout. We cannot afford to respond with the same complacency to the increasingly urgent warnings of climate scientists about the risks and impacts of run-away climate change.
The first signs of damages due to an overheating climate are already visible. Wildfires in California and Australia and the current locust plague in East Africa can be attributed in part to climatic changes. The corona pandemic has also shown how quickly effects in one particular area of life, in this case the health system, can spread to our entire society, calling into question habits and lifestyles that were previously taken for granted.
The corona crisis must therefore be a wake-up call. To safeguard our prosperity and way of life, we will have to transition rapidly to a climate-neutral global economy. Moreover, it points to the need for vigorous climate adaptation policies. Because with climate change here to stay, slowing its progress through rapid and ambitious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions won’t be enough. We also have to implement measures to protect ourselves from the likely impacts of climate change and to reduce the risk of systemic crises.
Resilience: Strengthening the energy system through more decentralisation
In the energy sector, the crisis should also prompt us to ask just how well insulated we are against systemic crises of this nature and to invest in making our supply structures more resilient. In the process of establishing a climate-friendly electricity system based on renewable energies, we have the opportunity to take such precautions. That means not focusing solely on cost-effectiveness, but also factoring in certain redundancies to strengthen the resilience of power systems.
At the same time, a certain degree of decentralisation can help to ensure a basic electricity supply at regional level even in the event of a crisis. It can also prevent the effects of a crisis from spreading to other areas of life. IASS research has shown that a regional supply structure based on renewable energies would not be significantly more costly than a structure based largely on electricity generation centres in the lowest-cost production locations. Even in a more regionally organised scenario, European supply networks still have an important role to play and should not therefore be questioned. But they can go hand in hand with the expansion of regional supply structures, thereby increasing the resilience of the electricity system as a whole.
It also makes sense to discuss options for continuing or resuming production of solar modules and other components in Europe. The crisis in China has led to major supply-chain bottlenecks in the solar energy sector, once more exposing Europe’s dependency on these imports. Here, too, we shouldn’t forget the cost advantages of a global division of labour. Nevertheless, reviving a European industry could ensure that a certain amount of capacity and know-how stay in Europe. That would enhance security of supply as well as increasing the resilience of our economic system.
Solidarity: Energy cooperatives in the electricity sector
Finally, the corona crisis has left us in no doubt that human solidarity is vital to preserving our society. Without the solidarity of the entire population it will not be possible to slow the spread of the virus and avoid overstretching the capacities of our health system. At European level, aid efforts have unfortunately been very slow to get off the ground. A swift EU reaction in the spirit of solidarity could have mitigated the fatal consequences of the crisis in Italy in particular. Instead, Germany and other EU countries went as far as putting a temporary halt to exports of protective gear. That has left its mark on Italy’s population and politics and is likely to be a further stumbling block to European cooperation in future.
That’s why it’s so important that we continue to promote solidarity at European level and anchor it firmly in EU structures. But we can also establish such structures at national and regional level. The existing renewable energy cooperatives are a functioning instrument that embodies precisely these principles. Here, too, we need to draw on the lessons from the corona pandemic and support such instruments in a more concerted way in future. This includes implementing the 2018 European Renewable Energy Directive, which provides for the possibility of “energy sharing”, i.e. joint use of electricity generated from renewable energies by so-called “renewable energy communities”.