Are we building back better?

The pandemic-era mantra of climate progressive countries sees the health-turned-economic crisis as an opportunity to “build back better” via Covid recovery packages. The shutdowns drove down global GHG emissions in 2020 as unemployed and virtual workers flew and drove less, and manufacturing and service demand slowed. In the US, for example, emissions in the second quarter of 2020 dropped 28% alone due to plummeting transportation use.

But the International Energy Association (IEA) has signaled that GHG emissions from global energy production in December 2020 were a full 2% (60 tons) higher than December 2019 levels. The IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol put it plainly:

“The rebound in global carbon emissions toward the end of last year is a stark warning that not enough is being done to accelerate clean energy transitions worldwide. If governments don’t move quickly with the right energy policies, this could put at risk the world’s historic opportunity to make 2019 the definitive peak in global emissions,”

Which brings us to the question asked in a study released today by Oxford’s Economic Recovery Project and the Global Recovery Observatory: Do current pandemic recovery strategies walk the talk of building back better on climate change? Analyzing over 3500 fiscal policies announced by leading economies through February 2021, the study’s short answer is a resounding but polite “not yet”. In 2020, of the $14.6 trillion of announced spending by the world’s 50 largest countries, $1.9 trillion (13%) was aimed at long-term “recovery-type” measures. Of those funds, only $341 billion (18%) was designated for green recovery initiatives. Overall only 2.5% of total spending went to green initiatives, mostly by a small group of high-income nations, as the graphic below illustrates. Deftly treating this low uptake as an opportunity to do more, the full report presents detailed analysis, including the high mitigation potential of building back better via green energy, transport, building, and R&D policies.

Reports like this one provide the baseline for devising and monitoring green recovery policies. Keep an eye on this space for my analysis of the upcoming relevant events.

  • March 31: IEA-COP26 Net Zero Summit, “to step up international efforts to turn net zero pledges into concrete energy policies and actions”
  • April: release of IEA’s Global Energy Review 2021
  • May 18: publication of IEA roadmap for energy sector net-zero emissions by 2050

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