Green pandemic recovery essential to close climate action gap

On December 9th , the United Nations Environment Program released their 11th edition of the Emissions Gap Report for the current –  COVID-19 dominated – year 2020. In spite of slightly lower emissions, the long-term effect of the pandemic on the climate will be negligible, according to the report. However, economic recovery could open up opportunities to transition to a low carbon economy with sustained emission reductions.

The Emissions Gap Report is produced by the United Nations Environment Program. Each year, the report assesses the gap between anticipated emissions and levels consistent with the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming this century to well below 2°C and pursuing 1.5°C. The two scenarios are coined by the report as “where we are likely to be” and “where we need to be”. Unlike previous years, in which reports have focused on direct comparisons with data from current and previous years, the 2020 report factors in preliminary assessments for the impact of COVID-19 and associated rescue and recovery measures.

The current report highlights that carbon emissions produced in 2020 are around 7% lower than in 2019, but this by no means should suggest that we are on track to bridging the emissions gap. The authors state that “current NDCs [Nationally Determined Contributions] remain insufficient to bridge the emissions gap by 2030 and that the size of the gap is as large as the 2019 assessment’s estimate”.

A significant share of the current Corona drop in 2020’s emissions results from an equally drastic drop in transport through the year. Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise from 2019 and the long-term impact of the drop in emissions is considered to be minimal, especially as non-carbon emissions remain largely unchanged as a result of the pandemic.

The importance of a green COVID-19 recovery

Though COVID-19 may have minimal impact in the physical reduction of emissions, the scale of economic recovery measures – according to the report – may allow for structural changes required for sustained emission reductions. This could open up a potential opportunity to transition to a low-carbon economy, but it is vital that this chance is taken if we are to bridge the emissions gap. Countries need to implement green policies and programmes, while to role of governments must take this opportunity in the next stage of COVID-19 fiscal interventions, the report finds. Taking this into account, the report highlights various scenarios depending on how countries decide to recover from COVID-19:

  • If countries maintain their current climate policies during their recovery, emissions could drop by up to 4Gt by 2030
  • If countries roll back on their climate policies as part of their recovery, emissions could only drop by up to 1.5Gt by 2030, and emissions could even increase by 1Gt if countries revert back to fossil fuels
  • If countries use their recovery as an opportunity to implement significant decarbonization strategies, emissions could drop by up to 15Gt by 2030, which would be more than a 25% reduction compared to pre-COVID scenarios.

Countries need to implement green policies and programmes and Governments must take this opportunity in the next stage of COVID-19 fiscal interventions, the report finds.

An impressive commitment to net-zero, but are targets empty promises?

The most encouraging development that the 2020 report recognises is the impressive number of countries that have committed to reaching net-zero by around mid-century. By the time the report was completed, a total of 126 countries had formally adopted net-zero goals, accounting for 55% of global emissions. Whilst the level of commitment is positive, it is yet to be either underpinned through near-term policy action or reflected in updates to NDCs for 2030. As it stands, there is a vast difference between the level of ambition in the net-zero goals and the level of ambition in 2030 NDCs. The report emphasises two vital steps required to support the net-zero goals that have been made:

  1. More countries need to develop long-term strategies consistent with Paris Agreement targets
  2. New and updated NDCs need to be submitted for consistency with net-zero goals


Where is there large potential?

Each year the report also looks at the potential of specific sectors. In 2020, it considers consumer behaviour and the shipping and aviation sectors. Combined, the two latter sectors were responsible for around 2Gt of 2019 carbon emissions, and have been continuously increasing over the last decade from demand for international travel and trade. Improvements in technology and operations can increase fuel efficiency, so major developments in the adoption of alternative fuels are required to reduce absolute reductions of CO2. Both sectors need to combine energy efficiency with a rapid transition away from fossil fuel, the report finds. As about two thirds of both sectors’ emissions are international, they are not accounted for in most NDCs. However, Article 4 of the Paris Agreement requires signatories to reduce all anthropogenic GHG emissions, from which no sector is exempt.

The report concludes that a low-carbon lifestyle can only be accomplished with the support of changes within socioeconomic systems and cultural conventions. It emphasizes the importance of individual participation from the private sector as well as from governments.

Read the Full Report >>