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Europe pushes for a green recovery as the Trump Administration weakens environmental protections

May 22, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

The dangerous added-effects of air pollution during the pandemic have emerged as the latest partisan flashpoint in Washington. Research shows emissions may heighten the risk of complications and death from Covid-19.

Despite these dangers, and the 94,000 Americans already dead from the virus on his watch, President Donald Trump has continued to weaken environmental rules at the behest of the fossil fuel industry. Over the past few months the Environmental Protection Agency has intensified its three-year campaign to cut protections—for both the environment and public health.

Trump’s EPA is finalizing rules that ease fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles while attacking rules aimed at reducing mercury pollution at power plants. Last month, the agency opted not to strengthen air-quality requirements governing soot, and now it’s seeking to give retailers more time to sell outdated wood heaters that emit more smoke—and potentially lethal air pollution.

But it’s not just the threat posed by air pollution that has left the Trump administration nonplussed. Also this month, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler refused to seek limits on a chemical that causes brain damage in fetuses and babies.

With much of the world housebound thanks to the coronavirus, global carbon dioxide emissions are 17% lower compared with the same time last year. To an optimist, the numbers show it’s possible to reduce emissions. To a pessimist, the fact that it took such a catastrophic event to cut emissions—even to 2006 levels—shows the massive task that lies ahead.

Nevertheless, the European Union is poised to announce the world’s greenest recovery package next week, as it seeks to curb pollution and save its economy from the pandemic. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is set to transform her Green Deal strategy (which seeks net zero emissions by 2050) into a rescue plan that drives private investment and creates jobs across the continent.

Selected proposals include spending up to 80 billion euros ($87.6 bilion) to boost electric vehicle sales and double investment in charging networks: an option to exempt EVs from the value-added tax; spending 91 billion euros a year to seal up drafty buildings, including plans to offer homebuyers green mortgages; and an annual 10 billion euro boost to renewable energy and hydrogen infrastructure.

The increased funding for renewables is likely welcome news. New power from wind and solar is set to fall this year for the first time in two decades, as new installations are delayed by factory closures, social distancing and developers’ financial concerns tied to the ongoing crisis.

The EU is also seeking to reduce the environmental impact of its food system. Its “Farm to Fork” strategy maps out ways for the region to halve the use of pesticides and antibiotics, boost organic farming, promote plant-based proteins and make every link of the system more sustainable. A separate plan on biodiversity lays out steps to restore ecosystems and cut pollution.

Meanwhile in the U.S., the outlook is much darker on almost every front. Huge meat companies—already under fire as major perpetrators of global warming—are facing blowback as the coronavirus sickens and kills plant workers. Asset managers with $2.3 trillion in assets want meatpackers to adopt recommendations they say will keep workers safe and mitigate reputational and financial risks.

Covid-19 and a weakened food supply chain aren’t the only threats looming on America’s horizon this summer. A warming atmosphere and warming seas are conspiring to wreak devastation during hurricane season.

Tropical Storm Arthur became the first named storm of the year last weekend. Though it turned east into the Atlantic, forecasters worry that it’s just the first domino to fall in a season that has the potential to match the worst ever. Scientists fear conditions are similar to 2005, when a record 28 storms clawed across the ocean, including Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans, killing 1,800 people. The waters of the Atlantic this year are exceptionally warm, ideal conditions for storms to form, feed and grow.