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Whether COVID-19 is a tipping point for climate action depends on what happens next

The pandemic knocked 2020 emissions back to 2007 levels. An analysis of stimulus policies in 41 countries shows how the savings could be cancelled out—or enhanced.
January 12, 2021

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When COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill, it also triggered a sharp drop in energy use and global carbon emissions. This drop won’t be enough to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement and keep overall warming below 2 °C—but careful planning for the post-pandemic recovery could put us on the right path, a new analysis suggests.

In the months since the novel coronavirus was declared a global pandemic, several groups of researchers have estimated both the emissions drop due the pandemic and the emissions effects of economic stimulus packages governments are designing to respond to the crisis. The new study is one of the most rigorously quantitative and broad in scope of these analyses.

“Our study is the first one to access the impacts of fiscal stimuli on global emissions on a global scale,” says Yuli Shan, an environmental scientist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and the paper’s first author.

Shan and a team of researchers from the Netherlands, the UK, and China used a global economic model to quantify the impact of coronavirus lockdowns on 79 major economies accounting for 93% of global GDP and 90% of global emissions. Based on these economic impacts they calculated emissions declines.

Their approach takes into account how the indirect effects of lockdowns in one country ripple through global supply chains. It also models the effect of potential additional lockdowns during future waves of the coronavirus.

(However, the figures only include emissions from fossil fuel use in business sectors—not household use, which may have increased somewhat due to working from home, Shan notes.)

Between 2020 and 2024 global emissions will be 3.9 to 5.6% lower than they would have been in the absence of the pandemic, the researchers reported December 22 in Nature Climate Change. They estimate that 2020 emissions were knocked back to 2007 levels.

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What happens next is the real question. The researchers calculated the emissions impacts of stimulus policies introduced by 41 countries accounting for 81% of global GDP. They analyzed stimulus policies already passed as well as modeling the impacts of likely future tranches of economic help.

The stimulus policies “could help with the energy transition and to achieve climate goals,” says Klaus Hubacek, an economist and environmental scientist at the University of Groningen and senior author of the paper.

Alternatively, post-pandemic stimulus “could also lock us further into carbon-intensive pathways, wasting trillions of dollars that will not be available for investing in low carbon infrastructure,” Hubacek warns.

If stimulus policies prioritize carbon-intensive technologies and investments in fossil-fuel infrastructure, global emissions between 2020 and 2024 could be up to 16.4% higher than they would be with stimulus policies that don’t direct funds to any particular industry or technology, the researchers found.

On the other hand, if stimulus funds flow to clean energy and low-carbon technologies, global emissions could be 4.7% lower than they would be in the case of stimulus policies without any such incentives.

In fact, the carbon-intensive stimulus could result in runaway emissions that grow even faster than they would have if the pandemic had never happened. But the green stimulus could set the world on a pathway compatible with keeping warming under 2° C, the researchers showed.

Of course, there was a similar opportunity to use stimulus packages to shift towards a green economy in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and most countries blew it. “A crisis is terrible thing to waste,” Hubacek says.

Source: Shan Y. et al.Impacts of COVID-19 and fiscal stimuli on global emissions and the Paris Agreement.” Nature Climate Change 2020.

Image: Colin Harris ADE via Flickr.




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