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The Insider

Pandemic Slows Growth Of Innovative Environmental Protection Efforts

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting every aspect of environmental protection, as the economic downturn threatens the growth of new pollution reduction technologies including clean energy, while campaigning environmentalists are scrambling to adapt to limits on in-person gatherings.

Inside EPA’s Environment Next has full coverage of the early consequences of the virus on new environmental technologies and agendas from the worldwide emergency now underway, and how environmental groups and technological firms are hoping to respond.

Environment Next is a free service to our subscribers featuring wide-ranging looks at coming developments for environmental protection and policy, including interviews, in-depth reporting and profiles of key figures, companies and other groups that are reshaping regulation and private governance on air, water, waste and climate change. The features offer a new way of reporting about the shift from command-and-control regulation to innovative, market-based measures and other efforts, including voluntary programs and government action outside EPA’s orbit.

This week, we interviewed Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day Network (EDN), on her group’s new plans for a “digital-first” Earth Day and how she and other environmentalists shifted from their original goal of organizing millions of people for in-person rallies on April 22, long seen as a potentially pivotal moment for groups hoping to marshal public support for climate action:

Coronavirus Upends Earth Day Network’s Climate Policy Action Strategy
The coronavirus pandemic is upending the Earth Day Network’s (EDN) strategy for mass public demonstrations calling for government action to curb climate change as part of the 50th anniversary Earth Day event in April, says EDN President Kathleen Rogers as the environmental group weighs a shift in focus to digital campaigns.

In an exclusive interview with Environment Next, Rogers said the coronavirus pandemic has forced EDN to adopt a “split personality,” where gatherings in the United States and other countries with serious outbreaks have been sharply limited, but outside that sphere, “half the world is moving on as if nothing is going on.”

But she continued that even though “not having people in the streets” could blunt the impact of any outburst of support for environmental causes, a digital campaign is hardly new territory for a 21st-century environmental group. Rather, Rogers says, that plan is just an acceleration of a long-running switch among citizen groups to primarily digital advocacy. “A giant number of our activities and programs were digital to begin with.”

EDN is one of many groups that had to abruptly curtail their plans for April 22 thanks to government orders against in-person gatherings during the pandemic:

Coronavirus Shifts Earth Day Climate Mobilization Push To Digital Focus
The Earth Day Network (EDN) is giving up on its plans for massive worldwide rallies calling for large-scale action to curb climate change slated for April 22, and switching to a “digital mobilization” centered on social media as governments across the world have limited in-person gatherings to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Environmentalists have also used the crisis to draw a line between pandemics and environmental issues, especially what they say is the massive action needed to address climate change. Rogers’ statement also draws parallels between the COVID-19 response, including the same crowd limits that are upending the Earth Day plans, and the need for massive action to address climate change.

“Our current pandemic demonstrates that governments must embrace science early. As we see now, many governments were slow to respond or even indifferent about the science of the coronavirus pandemic. . . . But the last few weeks have also demonstrated that our society, even at the international level, is capable of mass shifts across all sectors to meet a crisis head-on. We must apply the same scale and urgency of our response to climate change,” reads an EDN statement.

Meanwhile, the sudden economic downturn caused by the pandemic itself and efforts to contain it through “social distancing” has undercut what looked to be strong prospects for companies developing novel environmental technologies, including solar power:

COVID-19 Abruptly Casts Uncertainty On Solar Industry Growth Optimism
Coronavirus is creating sudden uncertainty for the solar industry’s recent news of record-breaking growth in 2019 and optimistic projections for expanding in coming years, with the sector now wrestling with the legal, policy, and market implications of COVID-19.

In response, green-power groups and environmentalists are asking Congress for targeted funds and measures like energy tax credits in stimulus legislation that would help the sector weather the crisis:

Clean Energy Advocates Urge Funding Support As COVID-19 Spreads
Major clean energy groups and the Sierra Club are urging Congress to quickly approve renewable energy tax credits and consider protections for the sector in pending coronavirus economic stimulus legislation, saying the pandemic poses major risks to the clean energy industry.

In a March 19 letter to lawmakers, seven clean-energy groups said they fear “supply chain disruptions that have the potential to delay construction timetables and undermine the ability of wind, solar, and hydropower developers to qualify for time-sensitive tax credits, and a sudden reduction in the availability of tax equity, which is crucial to monetizing tax credits and financing clean energy projects of all types.”