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Roya Sabri headshot

The COVID Recovery Isn’t Looking ‘Green’ So Far, But it Should

A "green" global COVID recovery, if well-executed, could support the goals of the Paris Agreement and ensure sustainable development worldwide.
By Roya Sabri
COVID Recovery

Already, the pope, the secretary-general of the United Nations (UN), and even 40 million global health professionals have called for a “green” COVID recovery. The overwhelming reason? Global resiliency. Why, then, haven’t nations been heeding the advice and decarbonizing their economies? According to a new International Energy Agency (IEA) report that evaluates global 2021 emissions and energy demand, energy consumption is set to increase this year, with a widespread doubling down on fossil fuels. This year may see the second-largest annual increase in CO2 emissions, the IEA warns.

Why does a COVID recovery mean we must build back greener?

A green global recovery, of course, supports the aim of the Paris Agreement to keep global climate well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It also supports well-rounded economic recovery and long-term economic resiliency.

Last summer, the World Resources Institute published a report, “5 Pillars for a Green and Resilient Recovery from COVID-19.” One of these pillars — helpful to remember as governments create regulations and pass legislation to stimulate their economies — is that global crises are often interrelated. Climate change, for example, has the potential to increase the frequency of banking crises by at least 26 percent, a 2019 study published in the journal Nature Climate Change found.

The economic benefit of green recovery is backed by data. When comparing two hypothetical recovery plans — one incorporating a green recovery and the other focusing on a COVID recovery or “return to normal,” Cambridge Econometrics and the We Mean Business coalition found a distinct difference in results. While both boosted output and employment, a green recovery produced a consistently larger impact with potentially long-term economic benefits, the study found. Applied to a selection of national contexts, the “Green Recovery Plan” produced the best results across the board not just for emission reductions, but also for GDP and employment.

So far, economies are returning to status quo energy production

It may come as no surprise that renewables have grown during the pandemic — a trend that IEA reporting confirms. The IEA expects renewables to account for more than half of the increase in global electricity supply in 2021. Simultaneously, though, fossil fuels are rebounding. Demand for the dirtiest offender, coal, is on a path to increase by 60 percent more than all renewables combined. This uptick of 4.5 percent, exceeding pre-pandemic levels, even approaches coal’s 2014 peak level, the report adds.

Growth in coal doesn’t exactly align with a clean or long-term COVID recovery plan. Even the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) released a statement this week in support of new clean energy jobs, recognizing the need for job security in a decarbonizing world.

Although carbon emissions decreased by over 6 percent in 2020, any temporary progress can be easily reversed. This year’s increase in fossil fuel demand could bring CO2 emissions to one percent below 2019 emissions levels, the IEA notes.

Thus far, government investment in fossil fuels for COVID-19 recovery has outweighed contributions toward renewable energy by four percentage points, according to the NGO-backed energypolicytracker.org. Just over 40 percent of public money directed at energy has gone toward fossil fuels.

Guidance for more resilient recovery plans

The Biden administration has already taken a step toward a green recovery with the introduction of its infrastructure bill, currently in process through Congress. Recently, France and Germany also unveiled green recovery plans. For other nations following behind, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has some recommendations for a long-term COVID recovery strategy that may help. Besides simply starting to “walk the talk,” its advice includes broadening measures to touch sectors such as agriculture, waste management and forestry, as well as investing in skills, innovation and job creation to ensure the transition to a more resilient economy is also just and equitable.

A well-executed COVID recovery could prove to be an opportunity for nations to do an about-face toward a cleaner economy. UN Secretary-General António Guterres summarizes the impetus well in his 2020 New York Times piece: “For years, we have failed our young by damaging the planet and failing to protect the people most vulnerable to crises. We have a rare and short window of opportunity to rectify that — by rebuilding a better world, not reverting to one that is good for only a minority of its citizens.”

Image credit: Thomas Richter/Unsplash

Roya Sabri headshot

Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn

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