Green recovery could be our last chance to meet 2050 climate goals

Photo: KEYSTONE / AP / Francisco Seco

Strong green stimuli are needed from governments around the world to even get a chance to avoid 0.3°C of warming by 2050, based on a new study published in the scientific journal, Nature. As existing climate policies are likely not enough to keep warming below 1.5°C, building back better will need to be greener.

Why this is important. The economic damage caused by Covid-19 has been tremendous. Figures from the first half of the year show the shrinkage of economies all around the globe. Questions on how countries will rebuild themselves in the best manner remain at large – all of this alongside the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, a target that has been slowly slipping away even before the pandemic.

We have witnessed a substantial but largely temporary drop in emissions during the pandemic — but, even then, it could only prevent 0.01°C of warming. As such, the next step towards recovery will be crucial as investments, particularly in infrastructures, tend to lock in the amount of emissions that will be produced for the decades to come.

The study maps the different ways countries can economically recover from the effects of Covid-19, after analyzing the changes in emissions during the global lockdowns. Using the charted path for warming since the pre-industrial era as the baseline, the study lays out four possible scenarios and their likely outcomes for global temperature increases.

The impact of the coronavirus response on global CO2 emissions (left), CO2 concentration in the atmosphere (middle) and temperature increase since the pre-industrial baseline (right), under the different scenarios. The baseline pathway is also plotted but largely obscured by the two-year-blip pathway. Source: Forster et al. (2020).

  • Status quo. Should governments return to their level of effort for climate action prior to the pandemic, then even after a “two-year blip“ of assumed lockdowns due to the virus, warming can increase to 1.8°C in 2050, with a roughly 40% chance of exceeding 2°C.

  • Fossil fueled recovery. Should countries invest more in coal, oil, and gas as part of the effort to rebuild the economy, CO2 emissions will be 10% higher than the baseline. Moreover, its warming trajectory will, as expected, go beyond global target.

  • Moderate green stimulus. Assuming an additional 0.8% of GDP goes to low-carbon energy and efficiency measures, with 0.3% less investment in fossil fuels, 0.2°C of temperature rise can be avoided and warming reaches around 1.6°C.

  • Strong green stimulus. With 1.2% more for green alternatives and reducing 0.4% from traditional sources of energy, 0.3°C of warming can be avoided — leading to 1.5°C of temperature rise.

Make or break. The pandemic offers a unique opportunity to build back better through a robust green economy. The study’s authors emphasize the need to invest in low-carbon energy alternatives and better energy efficiency — all while avoiding bailouts for fossil-fuel companies.

However, even so-called “ambitious” stimulus packages from Germany and the EU are not enough to drive the change needed. As the study’s leader Piers Forster from the University of Leeds’ Priestley International Centre for Climate tells Carbon Brief,

“Before we had coronavirus we weren’t on track, we absolutely weren’t… If we don’t do it today I think we won’t ever be able to, unfortunately.”

Carbon Brief Coronavirus: Green recovery ‘could prevent 0.3C’ of warming by 2050