Difficult and almost impossibly daunting as it may seem, the world is faced with not one but two existential crises and two races against time: the coronavirus and the climate emergency. Dealing with both is going to require extraordinary focus and resolution.
Already there is a whiff of political opportunism in the air. Last week, the Czech prime minister, Andrej Babis, said that the EUR1tn European Green Deal, unveiled and enshrined in law by the European commission barely three weeks ago, should be put to one side. Member states, he advised, should concentrate all resources on combating a pandemic which, one by one, is shutting down societies and economies. Along with other eastern European states such as Poland, the Czech government has been reluctant to acknowledge the scale of action required to combat global heating, which would have a severe impact on fossil fuel industries in their countries.
The extreme urgency of defeating Covid-19 scarcely needs stating. But Mr Babis’s broader suggestion has been rightly rejected. “This is one of the very reasons why we presented the climate change law: to avoid that climate action, a generational task, is obfuscated by more pressing and immediate challenges,” said a Brussels spokesman. Frans Timmermans, the Dutch commissioner who is leading the EU response on the climate emergency, has made the same point.
The new climate law commits member states to zero emissions by 2050. A stringent new target is also to be set for 2030, which will be enshrined in the law.
Mr Timmermans has said that the climate law will act as a ‘”compass” for the next 30 years as EU member states seek sustainable forms of growth. In these extraordinary times, local imagination and creativity in developing a sustainable future will be at a premium. There are at least some hopeful signs that such thinking is taking place.
In the city of Utrecht, plans have been unveiled for the largest purpose-built pedestrianised residential area in Europe, which will attempt to harness the virtues of the sharing economy. The Merwede estate will house 12,000 people on a 60-acre site. Transport will be provided by bus and train networks and a shared pool of bikes and cars – one car for every three families. Schools, shops, sports and medical services will all be within walking distance, and water from the local canal will be used to heat the area. The intention is for the district to become close to energy neutral.
Utrecht is one of the fastest-growing cities in the Netherlands and is projected to add 100,000 people to its 350,000 population by 2040. In terms of factoring in a necessary environmental dimension to new construction, Merwede looks like best practice. It is the kind of project that is relatively small scale, but repeatable. It helps of course that the Dutch have a historically passionate relationship with the bicycle. But as the EU attempts to hold the line on implementing its green deal, many more Utrechts will be required.