Prof. Simone Borg’

As our next contributor, we are honoured to introduce Prof. Simone Borg to the platform! In her article entitled ‘COVID or Climate? Do we have to choose, or choose to learn?’, Prof. Borg discusses how climate action should remain a priority, not in spite of COVID-19, but because of it and its consequences. Prof. Borg outlines certain lessons that can be drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic, and discusses the parallelism between COVID and climate change. Prof. Borg submits that the pathway to sustainability, as is the case with addressing health threats like COVID-19, calls for patience and perseverance. The EU Green Deal could be the trend-setter that truly transforms EU Member States, not only into the very first carbon-neutral economic bloc, but also into States with competitive and sustainable economies, resilient to climate change. Make sure to read Prof. Borg’s article now to find out more!

2020 was earmarked as the year when the Paris Agreement becomes operational to gradually achieve its main objective: carbon neutrality by 2050. The Paris Agreement provides a multilateral legal framework, based upon independent scientific advice. Scientific models demonstrate that the start of this decade provides the ultimate window of opportunity for humans to maintain a limited increase of 2 to 1.5 degrees Celsius in the global mean temperature by the end of the century. This is why, throughout 2019 and in early 2020, youth and other activists raised alarm bells and clamoured for a climate emergency. Humanity cannot procrastinate any further if it needs to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, by the end of this century, to pre-industrial levels. The Climate Emergency ethos revolved around 2020 as the turning point, to seriously embark on a decarbonisation process that will tip the scales and avoid global warming from reaching a point of no return, causing the extinction of life on the planet as we know it.

But in the early weeks of 2020, the world was suddenly overwhelmed by a pandemic, plunging humanity into disarray. COVID-19 wreaked havoc across all continents, leading to millions of fatalities, severely straining health systems, bringing travel and social interaction to a grinding halt, slowing down trade to a trickle, and promising a fearsome economic downturn that may have life threatening consequences as much as the virus itself. COVID-19 has triggered the need for an urgent economic recovery programme at the same time when crucial, and just as urgent climate action is required. This state of affairs has caused some political and entrepreneurial leaders to elbow out the climate emergency, arguing that there is no room for decarbonisation and preparedness to climate change with COVID-19 and its drastic economic consequences on the table. They argue that reversing the economic downturn is a priority and must be achieved as soon as possible, whilst all the rest is frivolous.

Thankfully this is not a truism. On the contrary, COVID-19 presents an opportunity to rise to the challenge of setting up a crisis recovery programme compatible with climate action to decarbonize human activity. Human beings have greatly progressed by learning from their mistakes and their achievements in times of crisis. Once both emergencies require an economic stimulus programme, it would be a serious mistake not to tackle the two emergencies simultaneously and rather foolish for humanity if it does not take advantage of the lessons learnt from the tragic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, which will continue to evolve in the years to come.

Climate action should remain a priority not in spite of COVID-19 but because of it.

In Search of a New Economic Model

In 2015, Heads of States and Governments, identified and agreed upon 17 Sustainable Development Goals, to be achieved by 2030, as essential pillars of economic, social, and environmental sustainability. The new EU Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen launched the EU Green Deal earlier this year. The ultimate goal of the EU Green Deal is to achieve the transformation of the Union into a modern, resource efficient, competitive and socially coherent economy. The keynote of the EU Green Deal is the commitment for a rules-based system, and enhanced climate ambition measures leading towards a collective, EU-wide, carbon neutrality by 2050.  Malta, together with 15 other EU Member States, has expressed its support to the Green Deal and its commitment to climate action in the wake of the pandemic, as an appropriate framework for a comprehensive recovery plan.

The need for a new economic model was deemed essential even prior to COVID-19, when as Sir David Attenborough put it at the 2019 World Economic Forum, “We have a finite environment- the planet. Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is a madman”. Consequently, the contemporary economic model based solely on infinite economic growth cannot be the solution to revive the economy ravaged by the pandemic. 2020 provides an opportunity for an economic renaissance where social justice and environmental well-being are not considered as restraints but as the actual, founding pillars of the economy as a whole. This is not a rhetoric statement. All raw materials are extracted from the environment; safe and clean water and air are essential to society. The degradation of the natural capital like soils and pollinator populations could prove to be an existential threat in the real sense of the word. It is impossible to have a healthy economy, a healthy society and sustainable development without a healthy environment and the sustainable use of natural resources. Just as it is impossible to have a healthy economy if economic reforms to factor environmental measures are taken without allowing for a just transition.

A truly sustainable economy starts with the transformation of essential services such as energy, transport, buildings, food, and supply chains. Similarly, dealing with the climate emergency necessitates the decarbonisation of these same essential services. Ironically, or rather pointedly, all these essential services were badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In some cases, the negative repercussions on these services were linked to excessive, unsustainable production. Other services that were badly hit by COVID-19, like energy, transport and buildings, are carbon intensive industries and among those already earmarked for restructuring to achieve decarbonisation. In both instances, rebuilding the economy after COVID-19 presents us with an opportunity not to repeat past mistakes and not to persist in unsustainable and harmful practices when providing essential services. Indeed, many of the sectors which act as the cornerstone of a “green” economy are “essential”, such that they require government support measures to ensure a just transition towards decarbonisation. In most cases, non-governmental actors also have a pivotal role to play: a just, green transition necessitates a behavioural change on the part of service providers, business operators and us all, as service users and consumers.

 Lessons Learnt from COVID-19

Government support measures for a just transition and behavioural change are among the lessons that can be drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic experience. Businesses and civilians who adapted to the changes imposed upon them, changing their usual “behavioural” practices, fared better. Over and above, the pandemic tried and tested the value of “long term” processes and methods rather than resorting to immediate “solutions”. The pathway to sustainability, as is the case with addressing health threats like COVID-19, in an appropriate manner, calls for patience and perseverance. These key “lessons learnt” from dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, would be definitely more effective and durable in terms of achieving economic stability and leaving no sector or members of society behind.

Parallelism between COVID and climate change goes even further, providing other useful lessons. The COVID-19 emergency highlights for instance, that it is crucial to rate effectiveness of law and policy in so far as it is dictated by science, not short-term interests. Governments that were precautionary and relied upon scientific advice rather than listening to populist demands, were the ones that achieved the best results in coping with the pandemic. States had been warned about the pandemic, yet many governments were reluctant to take ambitious action to stall it, before it became a reality. We have copious scientific reports and models warning us about the ravaging effects of climate change, urging us to raise ambition in fighting climate change to become carbon neutral by 2050 at the latest. A precautionary approach in the face of gaps in scientific information will be crucial to address climate change impacts predicted by scientific modelling. Climate action requires absolute faith in the precautionary approach- it cannot be halted unless we act now.

Finger pointing does little to help the battle against COVID-19, just as it has stalled progress in the fight against climate change. Climate action requires a multilateral approach and solidarity. Multilateralism has faltered during the pandemic and solidarity was, at times, seriously lacking even between political allies or members of the same economic bloc. A self-centred approach adopted by a State in an emergency is often due to lack of preparedness, due to panic and fear of being taken short in terms of providing the necessary support on a national level, but it is also caused by a false sense of self-sufficiency. Solidarity is more likely to happen when governments acknowledge that they cannot deal with the problem alone, and the exchange of information and lessons learnt is beneficial to all. It was only when multilateralism and regionalism regained some ground that States could bring themselves to come up with a remarkable initiative to support each other and join forces to accelerate development and the fair distribution of a vaccine for COVID-19. Similarly, localities that already had or rediscovered a community sense during the pandemic fared better, leading to incredible stories of solidarity and support.

The need to invest in preparedness to fight an impending crisis, even if not necessarily cost-effective in the short term, is another lesson learnt from COVID-19. Countries with well-organized and well-coordinated health systems fared better. The transition to a carbon neutral planet will require investment in new business models to replace existing carbon intensive ones that may cost less. COVID-19 showed how humans have the capacity to react to an existential threat and take drastic measures in a short span of time to adapt to new circumstances and seize emerging personal opportunities. Car factories started producing protective equipment and perfumeries, sanitizers. There is no limit to human creativity when in dire straits; necessity is the mother of invention.

After the Great Depression, which was in part due to effects of the Spanish Flu Pandemic, US President Roosevelt launched the New Deal based on the famous three Rs that continue to form part of any economic recovery programme: relief, recovery, and reform. During President Obama’s administration, a Green New Deal was launched, which aimed to tackle both environmental issues but also poverty, income inequality and racial discrimination. The EU Green Deal emulates the latter two and like the both of them, has been branded by opposing factions as inopportune, as well as hostile to business and economic growth. History proved the opponents of the Roosevelt’s New Deal to be seriously mistaken. Sadly, the US Green New Deal was killed in the making. One can only augur that the EU Green Deal meets with a fate similar to the former rather than the latter. If allowed to work, the EU Green Deal would be the trend-setter that truly transforms the EU Member States not only into the very first carbon-neutral economic bloc, but also into States with competitive and sustainable economies, resilient to climate change.  COVID-19 is an opportunity rather than a competitor in fighting climate change. Ironically, even the timing is favourable since there is one stark difference between the climate emergency compared to COVID-19. Unless carbon neutrality is reached by mid-century, no amount of preparedness beyond that date will be good enough to counter irreparable harm. 


Prof. Simone Borg
Prof. Simone Borg

Professor Simone Borg LL.D, LL.M. (Int law), Ph.D (IMLI) is Malta’s Ambassador for Climate Action and chairs the Climate Action Board. Prof. Borg is a resident academic at the University of Malta, where she heads the Department of Environmental and Resources law and is also a lecturer in International law at the Faculty of Laws. She is the director for the International Master of Arts Programme on Ocean Governance and chairs the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development. She is a visiting lecturer at the IMO International Maritime Law Institute and has lectured at various Universities abroad. Simone Borg is currently chairing the Steering Committee for Malta’s National Post COVID Strategy. Prof. Borg started her career as a diplomat with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Malta and then headed the Multilateral Department within the Ministry of the Environment from 1992 to 2004. She was Malta’s chief negotiator in various Environmental Multilateral Agreements, and also drafted national environmental law and policy. In 2017, during Malta’s tenure of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, she chaired the EU working party on climate negotiations. In 2019, she was appointed Malta’s Cheffe de Fil in the Summit of the Two Shores Initiative. Simone Borg also works as a freelance legal expert on International law, with a special focus on ocean governance, climate law and environmental law in various projects with the European Union, the United Nations and academic networks. Prof. Borg is a member of the IUCN Commission on Environmental Law, one of the experts on the European Union’s Horizon 2020 SC 5 Advisory Group on climate action. She has also published books including the monograph Conservation of Living Marine Resources on the High Seas, as well as many articles and papers on environmental law, climate change law and ocean governance. In 2017, she received the French National Order of Merit for her work as a diplomat on climate action in Malta and within the International community.