Green pandemic recovery essential to close climate action gap, says new UN report

09-12-2020 | News item

A green pandemic recovery could cut up to 25% off predicted 2030 greenhouse gas emissions and bring the world closer to achieving the target of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change to keep global warming well below 2 °C. A pandemic-related decrease in emissions of up to 7% in 2020 will have a negligible impact on climate change. If governments invest in climate action as part of the pandemic recovery efforts and solidify emerging net-zero commitments with strengthened pledges at the next climate meeting — to take place in Glasgow in November 2021 — emissions can be brought down to levels broadly consistent with the 2 °C target. These are some of the main conclusions from a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), to which PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency contributed.

‘The most significant and encouraging development in terms of climate policy this year is the growing number of countries that have committed to net zero emissions goals. To remain feasible and credible, however, these commitments must be urgently translated into strong near-term policies and action and reflected in more ambitious updated or new Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)’, according to Michel den Elzen, senior researcher at PBL. Den Elzen contributed to the evaluation of current policies in G20 countries, the calculation of the emissions gap and of the impact of COVID-19 on global emissions projections in UNEP’s latest report.

Over 3 °C temperature rise can only be avoided with more ambitious pledges and stronger national action

UNEP’s annual Emissions Gap Report 2020 finds that, despite a dip in 2020 carbon dioxide emissions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is still heading for a temperature increase of at least 3 °C by the end of this century. However, if governments invest in climate action as part of their pandemic recovery efforts and solidify emerging net-zero commitments with strengthened pledges at the next climate meeting — in Glasgow in November 2021 — emissions can be reduced to a level broadly consistent with the 2 °C target. By combining a green pandemic recovery with swift moves to include new net zero commitments in updated NDCs, and following up with rapid, stronger action, governments could still attain the more ambitious 1.5 °C target.

Due to the pandemic, emissions decrease by 7% in 2020 - impact on long-term global warming negligible

Each year, the Emissions Gap Report assesses the gap between anticipated emissions and levels consistent with the Paris Agreement targets of limiting global warming this century to well below 2 °C and pursuing 1.5 °C. The report finds that, in 2019, total greenhouse gas emissions, including land-use change, reached a new high of 59.1 gigatons of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e). Annual global greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 1.4% since 2010, on average, with a more rapid increase of 2.6% in 2019 due to a large increase in forest fires.

As a result of less travel, lower industrial activity and lower electricity generation this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, carbon dioxide emissions are predicted to decrease by up to 7% in 2020. However, this dip only translates into a 0.01 °C reduction in global warming by 2050. Meanwhile, the emission gap has not been narrowed compared to last year and is, as yet, unaffected by COVID-19. The NDCs, thus, remain inadequate to achieve the Paris Agreement climate goals.

Green recovery critical

A green pandemic recovery, however, can cut up to 25% off the emissions projected for 2030 under the policies that were in place before COVID-19. A green recovery could put emissions by 2030 at 44 GtCO2e, instead of the predicted 59 GtCO2e — far outweighing emission reductions related to unconditional NDCs, under which the world would be heading for a 3.2 °C temperature rise.

A green recovery would put emission levels in the range that gives a 66% likelihood of holding temperature increases to below 2 °C, but would still be insufficient to achieve the 1.5 °C target.

The measures that should be given priority in green fiscal recovery include direct support for zero-emission technologies and infrastructure, reducing fossil fuel subsidies, no new coal-fired power plants, and promoting nature-based solutions — including large-scale landscape restoration and reforestation. So far, action on green fiscal recovery has been limited. Five of the G20 members have dedicated shares of their spending, up to 3% of GDP, to low-carbon measures (the EU, France, Germany, Republic of Korea and the United Kingdom). Nevertheless, in the next phase of COVID-19 fiscal interventions, a significant opportunity remains for countries to implement green policies and programmes.