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EU leaders commit to climate considerations in coronavirus recovery

European Union leaders have agreed to pay special attention to measures aimed at containing climate change in the bloc's coronavirus recovery plan, heeding widespread calls not to let the pandemic derail Europe's ambitious environmental targets.

The announcement was made in a joint statement by the bloc's 27 heads of state to coordinate an economic response to the outbreak of the virus, which has effectively shut down daily life in most countries and is expected to lead to a sharp economic downturn.

"The urgency is presently on fighting the coronavirus pandemic and its immediate consequences," said the statement by the European Council, issued March 26. "We should however start to prepare the measures necessary to get back to a normal functioning of our societies and economies and to sustainable growth, integrating inter alia the green transition and the digital transformation."

The details of the EU's relief effort still have to be worked out, but the reference to the green transition should be welcome news to the politicians, economists and companies that had called for stimulus measures to be used to accelerate a shift to a more sustainable economy. The European Commission, the bloc's executive, wants all member states to sign up to a target for climate neutrality by 2050, which Poland has so far rejected.

READ MORE: Sign up for our weekly coronavirus newsletter here, and read our latest coverage on the crisis here.

In the U.S., a $2 trillion relief bill passed by the Senate on March 25 did not include specific climate-related provisions, such as tax credit extensions for clean energy projects, which had been championed by Democrats.

Investors and climate activists had warned the EU and other governments against losing sight of climate change measures amid the immediate threat to public health and the economy. Individual countries such as Germany have already allocated billions in direct aid and financial relief for businesses.

A group of environmental organizations wrote to leaders of EU institutions March 26 to press their case, arguing that "crucial decisions will need to be taken on where these substantial financial flows should be directed."

"We are calling on the European Union and its governments to demonstrate leadership and foresight by continuing and reinforcing on the trajectory towards a resilient and sustainable economy, in line with the European Green Deal," their letter said, referring to the commission's net-zero proposal.

The fact that the funds now being allocated to counter the effects of the pandemic and jump-start economies could be a boon to some sectors has also not been lost on executives.

Ørsted A/S CEO Henrik Poulsen, who leads one of the world's largest pure-play renewable energy companies, said calls were growing louder to use the trillions in stimulus for environmentally sound investments, including green energy.

"The climate challenge is not going to go away," Poulsen told investors on a call this week. "You might as well spend them wisely."