Solar cells are installed on the embassy’s roof as part of its green lifestyle promotion. Credit: The Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands

Countries urged to consider integrating “green recovery” into their economic recovery plans for more societal resilience and sustainability

The integration has provided an “unprecedented” opportunity to address pre-existing crises including climate change as much as future challenges, said sustainable development experts and diplomats working in the field at the recent forum, Green and Sustainable Recovery, co-hosted by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Thailand

Kees Rade, Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Thailand, who had opened the forum with his key note speech said it’s totally understandable that for politicians, for researchers, and so on, COVID-19 is absolutely the main priority at the moment as it should be.

But on the other hand, people have to also realize the fact that while they are focusing on COVID-19, this does not mean that other crises have disappeared.

Over the last couple of months, people would have seen the levels of PM 2.5 going down, as well as CO2 emissions, which went down by up to 8%. However, this is not structural, but conjunctural, he said.

“It will restart one day, everything, all these figures will go up again,” said the ambassador.

Citing the 2020 Global Risks Report produced by the World Economic Forum, which guaged opinions of over 750 global leaders, the top five global risks for the next decade are all climate and environmental related.

Antarctica in January, the ambassador further cited, has experienced the first ever heat wave with temperatures above zero degrees for three consecutive days and nights.

Europe’s summer of 2019, meanwhile, was the hottest ever and the Netherlands saw a record degree of 40.7 degrees, which has never been seen before.

The Global Climate Risk Index 2020 published by German Watch noted Thailand was ranked the eighth of countries being most affected by extreme weather events in the last few decades, the ambassador said, adding up to 26% of his country, where 60% of our population lives, is below sea level.

“Although the climate crisis has disappeared from the headlines, it has certainly not disappeared from our planet,” remarked the ambassador.

H.E. Rade proposed integrating the concept of “Green Recovery” into the economic stimulus packages countries including Thailand are working on, citing this would be beneficial not only to the climate, but also to economies as well.

“This is all about green recovery… It’s about the choices we will make, or we have to make when redesigning the recovery packages, ” said H.E. Rade of the green recovery concept.

“…If we will be able to link these crises to the (COVID-19) crisis, that would be an unprecedented opportunity to do something about the worst scenario, a climate crisis.”

After all, they are financed by public funds that should embrace sustainability, the ambassador pointed.

Besides the climate reasons, linking the packages to the climate crisis could also be beneficial to the economies.

Citing the recent report from the University of Oxford, where the distinguished economists including Joseph Stiglitz and Nicholas Stern shared their arguments, green projects not only are better for the climate, but do also generate more jobs, delivering higher short-term rates of return and increasing longer-term savings than more traditional fiscal stimulus measures.

“And to be honest, analyzing the recovery packages we’ve seen so far, it’s fair to say that 80% is not exactly going in the right direction. That’s, for example, the support given to fossil fuel sector is about 10 times higher than the support given to renewable energy projects.

“So in that sense, we really have to keep this issue on the agenda,” concluded the ambassador, urging people including here in Thailand to debate and work together.

“The experts tell us that we do have a few years left to change our economic models if we want to achieve the 1.5 degrees, keeping it below that limit. So, in that sense, we have to act now,” added the ambassador.

The Green and Sustainable Recovery discussion
Credit: Monre

Building forward greener

UNDP Thailand’s Resident Representative, Renaud Meyer agreed.

Mr. Meyer said people should not be complacent for what has been done to address COVID-19 as the focus today is on the economic recovery.

The critical question remains when digging further, including into that prepared by the Thai government; how many of the criteria set for the packages are environmental related?

“More has to be done. And it goes back to the interrelation of issues, this crisis, and our ability as countries, as governments, even as citizens to respond to it offers an amazing opportunity the Ambassador has said of doing it better,” said Mr. Meyer.

Mr. Meyer said the UN normally introduces the concept of BBB or “Building Back Better”, like that to the earthquake incident in Nepal in 2015, but now the idea seems not enough to address the COVID-19 crisis.

“Building Forward Greener” then is the latest term to help cope with the crisis.

“And that to me is interesting because “forward” really tells us that going back to normal is not an option and it should not be considered an option.

“We need to define what this new normal means and this new normal has to bring along with this idea of integrated solutions,” said Mr. Meyer, explaining that it means if we only focus on recreating jobs, through stimulus packages that are being implemented, there is a very high chance that all positive environmental signs during COVID-19 are going to reverse because “we’ll focus on the job and not on what needs to change to bring those jobs back.”

And that new normal has to include a lot of environmental principles, he added.

In addition, government policies to address these challenges should not be “negatively compensating”, if not contradictory to, one another, one of the common critical problems when dealing with the countries’ challenges, including Thailand’s.

“Even if we take action, not looking at the big picture will take us to a dead end and we can invest all those millions and billions of bahts. Some of it might be wasted for sure. They will be missed opportunities,” said Mr. Meyer.

The COVID-19 measures introduced in the Netherlands during the crisis.
Credit: The Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands

EU’s lessons

H.E. Pirkka Tapiola, Ambassador of the European Union to Thailand, said a number of questions have been raised at the moment on how to recover the economy, but what hasn’t really been in the discussion is the quality of the recovery, the greenness of the recovery, and the environmental commitments.

“The economy has to come back, but it need not be the same as it was before now,” said the ambassador.

The ambassador said people must not lose this opportunity as the basis for going back to earlier commitments for the planet is stronger than ever.

They just need to look from two different dimensions, and this especially holds true for the EU. First, they need to recover economies, and people need to do it in the way as committed to build a modern, clean and healthy economy, both to secure livelihoods for the next generations, and also to secure the planet, he said.

This, he added, does require some few important commitments. First, it requires a commitment to fostering convergence. It needs resilience, and lastly, it needs people to work for transformation.

The EU Summit in Brussels was quite dramatic, but the leaders reached a comprehensive package combining the classical seven year multi annual financial framework, the ambassador said.

This adopted package, he added, includes a 750 billion recovery fund, and 1.074 trillion of the MFF budget, which makes up a total of 1.8 trillion together.

The EU managed to come up with determination towards stronger Europe, and what was more important was the fact that none of the fundamental values and goals for the environment or other values were compromised, the ambassador noted.

European Green Deal, which was already put into motion before the COVID-19 crisis, was maintained as the cornerstone of the EU Economic Recovery, the ambassador said.

The ambassador said the EU remains committed to be the climate neutral, and the European Green Deal therefore comes as the recovery’s cornerstone, as well as of the policies of the new commission.

“It was very clear from discussions in the European parliament that this commission’s would not have been approved by parliament without strong commitment to the European Green Deal. So, the green deal as such is the cornerstone of the work of our current executive.

“The green deal remains our roadmap also, within the recovery efforts to support the transition to a climate neutral and more sustainable economy.

“By using it as a compass, we can turn, I believe, this crisis into an opportunity. To rebuild our economy is different things to make them more resilient, and this is not a matter of small adjustments. We need structural change. And maybe this moment is the one where we really do have a double need for that structural change,” said the ambassador, citing such enormous need for change in some industries including tourism, which has still seen no way to recovery soon.

H.E. Tapiola said the EU has tools to deliver this goal, including the European investment plan, the so-called “just transition mechanisms”, a federal impact assessment plan to increase the EU 2030 climate ambition, the EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy, trade policies and among others.

Thailand, meanwhile, has been working out its economic stimulus package as well.

As revealed by the Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-acha, a number of green initiatives had been introduced even before the COVID-19 and continued so through the crisis such as the closure of national parks and the setting of carrying capacity for parks nationwide.

The minister said the current recovery package is being steered to creat jobs including green ones such as tree planting by his ministry.

However, the minister conceded that it’s a challenge to embrace long-term sustainability into the recovery plan and that needs people to work together.

Thailand, he said, has the national strategy which has addressed long term climate policies to guide the country toward a more sustainable pathway.

The strategy, as noted in the strategy plan, is aimed at cutting carbon emissions, promoting low carbon society and climate-friendly infrastructure, as well as introducing climate-proof and mitigation measures against extreme incidents in the future.