Almost 1 year into pandemic, green recovery is still absent

Source: By Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, December 10, 2020

For the last 11 years, the United Nations has released an annual report detailing the emissions gap facing the world and its climate goals. This year’s edition, unsurprisingly, focuses on COVID-19.

The pandemic itself will have little impact on the world’s emissions trajectory, despite a record fall in the global economy’s output of greenhouse gases this year. More important, the report finds, is how governments choose to build back.

“A green pandemic recovery can take a huge slice out of greenhouse gas emissions and help slow climate change,” said Inger Andersen, the executive director of the United Nations Environmental Programme. “I urge governments to back a green recovery in the next stage of COVID-19 fiscal interventions and raise significantly their climate ambitions in 2021.”

Governments have yet to heed the call. China, the United States, Europe and India rank as the world’s top four emitters. Collectively, they accounted for 55% of global emissions over the last decade, according to the U.N.

The Rhodium Group, a consulting firm, reckons America, India and China have dedicated less than 3% of total COVID-19 stimulus to green investments.

China has committed much of its spending to manufacturing and heavy industry, investments that are likely to boost emissions, said Kate Larsen, a Rhodium analyst.

The U.S. earmarked $25 billion in aid for public transit agencies, but that money is quickly running out. Cities across the country are proposing drastic reductions in service in the face of decreased ridership and ravaged budgets.

A $908 billion aid package working its way through Congress includes $15 billion for transit, roughly half of what officials say is needed to keep trains and buses running. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

“The only green investments that have been a part of serious discussion on stimulus spending has not been to advance any clean energy development, it has only been to save existing transit agencies or to keep them afloat,” Larsen said. “We’re behind the curve in that regard, we’re not talking about new investment to build up our clean energy infrastructure.”

Europe is the outlier. By Rhodium’s count, the European Union and its member states have dedicated almost 20% of stimulus spending, or some $275 billion, to green investments. Those moves should pave Europe’s pathway toward lower emissions by putting financial heft behind the continent’s climate ambitions.

Still, questions remain there, too. E.U.’s stimulus spending still must be implemented by member countries, Larsen said.

“There has been progress in Europe in setting the intention in meeting clean and green investments, but the rubber hasn’t hit the road yet,” she said.

The U.N. report shows that the world has little time to waste to meet its emissions goals. Emissions would need to fall 23% over the next decade to put the world on track for 2 degrees Celsius of warming by century’s end, according to an analysis of the report by Zeke Hausfather, who leads the climate and energy program at the Breakthrough Institute. That figure grows to 33% for 1.8 C and 56% for 1.5 C.

The world has been trending the opposite direction in recent years, despite improved efficiency and increased deployment of renewables. Global emissions grew on average 1.3% a year between 2010 and 2019, reaching a record 59 gigatons last year. That figure includes emissions from land use changes.

The U.N. thinks emissions will fall 7% this year compared to 2019 levels. But the international agency said it anticipates a rebound in global greenhouse gas output in the absence of government action. It estimates the world could cut emissions 25%, or 15 gigatons, if governments incorporate climate policies into their response to the pandemic.

There are some signs the world is getting serious about the climate challenges it faces. France and the United Kingdom have enshrined their 2050 net-zero goals in new laws. China has committed to carbon neutrality by 2060. Japan has announced a net-zero goal for 2050, and South Korea’s president has committed to becoming carbon neutral by the same year.

One challenge of the Paris Agreement was that the world announced its intention to limit warming by 2 C but committed to reductions that would limit warming to 3 C, Hausfather said. The new commitments show the world’s rhetoric is now catching up to its promises.

“The big question going forward is do we have the political will to transfer these targets into actual reductions?” he said.