Prof. Dr Dirk Messner is President of the German Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt, UBA) and former Director of the Institute for Environment and Human Security of the United Nations University (UNU-EHS). Prof. Messner previously also acted as long-standing Director of the German Development Institute (Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik, DIE) in Bonn. A high-profile expert on sustainable development and climate change, Prof. Messner has been Co-Chairman of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) since 2013 and Co-Chair of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network Germany (SDSN) since 2014.
GPI has talked to him about the impact of COVID-19 on climate change and why it is essential to align international development and business efforts with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) moving forward.
Professor Dr. Messner, before COVID-19, climate change and environmental protection were very high on the political agenda. What does the pandemic mean for climate change efforts?
I see three important impacts here, three important trends. The first reaction of many people at the beginning of the pandemic was that forget climate change, forget environmental policies, now it is about supporting private sector and growth. And this was the immediate reaction. We tried very hard from our institution, the German Environmental Agency, to get our voices heard about climate change, obviously.
A second reaction was that greenhouse gas emissions are going down, resource consumption is going down. So, the pandemic is helping to support the ecological systems to say so. But of course, this is only a short-term effect, a short-term impact. Longer term, we need to build climate resilient and climate compatible economic structures.
So, there is a third element then, which makes me optimistic because I observe an emerging trend towards a new consensus on sustainable development and climate protection as a project of economic modernization. We are listening to voices from the private sector. We are listening to voices of The Economist, the newspaper on economic affairs. We are listening to voices from international organizations. So, there is now a strong consensus that climate protection is the orientation for economic modernization. And this makes 2020 different from the crisis in 2008 and 2009 where we really forgot the green dimensions of economic development.
And in this regard, what are your expectations towards the European Union and the upcoming German presidency? What should be prioritized in the next few months?
There are two issues which we need to have in mind. The first one is a short-term reaction, so liquidity for companies and short-term support for companies and also vulnerable people. And the second element is then how to link these short-term reactions and stimulus packages with long term transformations of our economies? And we have the Green New Deal in Europe on the table. And this seems to be the main orientation also for decision makers. And this is a good perspective. So, making the Green New Deal the instrument of fighting the economic and social impacts of the pandemic is a good strategy.
When we talk about developing nations, the pandemic hits them especially hard. And, for instance, in Africa many nations are now facing multiple challenges. In your opinion, what needs to be done to ensure a sustainable recovery and way out of the crisis for these nations?
Many African countries and developing countries in the larger sense are in a very difficult situation because COVID-19 hits countries with weak health structures obviously hard. And this is the case in many developing countries. And then a second element is that social distancing is very difficult for poor people living in urban areas and in slums where many people are living together. And then, obviously, the economic impacts are also drastic because industrial countries are reducing their imports of oil and resources, and many African countries are depending on these kinds of exports. So, health impacts, social impacts, economic impacts are really challenging.
Mid-term Africa needs to rebuild and develop further economic structures because the economies are too little diversified. They need to move away from only depending on resources and they have to invest in people, they have to invest in technology, they need to invest in the new fields of our global economy, which is, for example, being focused on renewable energy systems. Africa has good natural conditions to be a driver of these processes. So many African countries could become exporters of renewable energies. We have these discussions about hydrogen structures, hydrogen infrastructure. Africa should focus on these new trends in the global economy. And it needs support for that, obviously – support from international organizations and support being based on international development cooperation.
With most nations now having to focus rather inwards and focus on short-term crisis management, long-term goals such as delivering on the SDGs and climate protection are often taking a back seat, as you have also mentioned. In your opinion, what should the international development community do, moving forward, to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable people and nations are not left behind?
The first imperative, obviously, is that international solidarity and international cooperation with African countries and other developing countries is very important. This is a global crisis. We only can win this crisis or overcome this crisis if we get this done internationally. So, don’t forget African countries. International solidarity is important because one of the first reactions after the pandemic started was “our nations first”, you know. What we need is global cooperation.
The focus of global cooperation should be, as we have already discussed, short-term on the one hand side, so investing and helping all the poor and vulnerable people and stabilizing the health infrastructures. The World Food Program plays a very important role because in some countries we see hunger crisis emerging. So, this is short-term.
Mid-term, the SDGs are still the most important target system which we have for development cooperation and international development in general worldwide. And here I would argue and emphasize strongly that the SDGs are not a luxury, the SDGs are a concept for moving towards sustainable development. And this has three important dimensions: the first one is we need growth, focusing on people, on human development and equity. Second, we need growth and economic development within the boundaries of ecosystems, avoiding to destroy, as we did in the past, ecosystems and the planetary system. And the third element is the SDGs are being based on the idea of good and inclusive institutions. So therefore, my point is that the argument of many that SDGs are too expensive now, in a situation of crisis, goes completely into a wrong direction. SDGs are what we need now to build sustainable economies.
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