Blockades caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have reduced greenhouse gas emissions. However, in the recovery phase, emissions could rise to levels above those predicted before the pandemic. It all depends on how the stimulus money that governments inject into their economies is spent. A team of scientists, led by Dr. Yuli Shan and Professor Klaus Hubacek of the University of Groningen, quantified how different recovery scenarios could affect global emissions and climate change. Their results were published in Climate change in nature December 22nd.
The global recession caused by the coronavirus has had a profound impact on greenhouse gas emissions that is likely to continue in the coming years. “A fall in 2020 could bring us back to the 2006-2007 level,” says Yuli Shan, an environmental scientist at the University of Groningen and the first author of the article. CO2 emissions from industrial sectors during 2020 to 2024 could be 3.9 to 5.6 percent lower than emissions expected without a pandemic. “This drop in emissions will help us achieve the goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement, although that is not enough yet.” However, countries are now developing stimulus packages to strengthen their economies and this will affect emissions.
Shan and his colleagues from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and China used a recently developed economic impact model to calculate the direct and indirect effects of locking, but also the effects of stimuli in different scenarios. These calculations were performed for the economies of 41 countries, representing about 90 percent of the global economy. “We’ve done this for entire global supply chains,” Shan explains. “For example, if China has to stop producing certain goods, it could also affect production in the U.S. or in Europe.”
The calculations were performed for the distribution of incentives in five different economic categories (construction, manufacturing, services, health and households) and for different policy objectives. “They differ in the amount of carbon emissions they will produce,” explains Shan. The results of the different scenarios were then quantified in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
“The models show that without structural changes, we will see a V-shaped response,” Hubacek says. In that case, emissions will rise rapidly to pre-crisis levels and may even exceed those levels. “Our results show how far different scenarios can take us away.” Emissions could be reduced by 6.6 gigatons of carbon (-4.7%) or increased by 23.2 gigatons (+ 12.1%). “There is enough room to go the wrong way,” Hubacek said. “And the crisis is a terrible thing to lose.”
Incentive packages should focus on innovation, support energy transition and help households invest in the adoption of renewable energy. “Spending this money to save a carbon-intensive sector, like airlines, is going in the wrong direction. It is much better to improve public transport and railways.” Hubacek’s message is that the COVID-19 crisis has done great damage to greenhouse gas emissions and that we should use this to our advantage. “This crisis is awful, but it is also a wake-up call for action against climate change. We are now in a position to really do something about it.”
However, there is also a big risk: governments have to borrow billions for incentive packages. The increase in national debts leaves little room for further investment in the next few decades. “So if we don’t invest in low-carbon alternatives now, it’s not going to happen for long.” This would mean that greenhouse gas emissions could increase above what was predicted before the pandemic.
“Our next project is a more detailed study of the EU economy, but still embedded in the global model. So we will look at entire production chains.” Hubacek hopes governments will make the right choice. “Right now, it can go in either direction: we can increase global warming or slow it down significantly.”
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Material provided University of Groningen. Note: Content can be edited for style and length.