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A University of Tennessee, Knoxville, faculty member, along with researchers from Imperial College London and Climate Analytics in Berlin, published a new study in Science concluding that COVID-19, economic recovery, and climate change go hand in hand.

While current climate efforts by governments worldwide are insufficient to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement, redirecting society back onto that ambitious path is well within reach if just a tenth of COVID-19 funding is invested in a climate-positive recovery over the next several years, with the dual aims of stimulating the global economy and accelerating the deployment of low-carbon energy supply and energy efficiency measures.

David McCollum

David McCollum, an Energy and Environment Research Fellow with UT’s Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy and senior researcher at the Electric Power Research Institute, began his work a few years ago. “I worked with a number of international colleagues on a large model intercomparison study where we calculated the clean energy investment needs for putting countries on track to achieving the Paris goals,” he said. “Then COVID-19 comes along, and many governments, companies, and other organizations are pledging to ‘build back better.’ In this new analysis, we simply compare government stimulus plans to date with clean energy investment needs; the insights that emerge are quite powerful.”

Governments worldwide are planning stimulus packages to boost their economies following the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, more than $12 trillion has been pledged in such packages, according to the International Monetary Fund. This response is three times larger than the 2008–09 global financial crisis recovery spending and represents around 15 percent of the global gross domestic product.

The research team found that if just a tenth of stimulus money was invested each year over the next five years in climate-positive recovery plans for the global energy system, the world could be put on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement aims to limit the average global temperature rise in this century to less than 2°C above preindustrial temperatures and to pursue efforts to limit the increase further. Numerous studies have shown that meeting this goal will require a reduction in the use of fossil fuels, a shift to low-carbon and renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind power, and large improvements in energy efficiency.

Today’s policies in countries and states globally, however, are leading the world toward an increase to 3°C above preindustrial averages. These higher temperatures will bring greater risks and more severe impacts such as droughts, flooding, and storms.

Few countries have stated in detail how they will use their recovery packages, but immediate priorities are likely to be supporting health care systems, preserving livelihoods, and stabilizing employment. Beyond these areas, governments will be looking for investments that can foster economic recovery over the longer term.

“Countries’ economic recovery packages could include, for example, direct stimulus and investments in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, incentives and rebates for building energy efficiency retrofits, and other types of green-supporting policies,” said McCollum.

The team’s analysis also shows that a climate-positive recovery needs a strong near-term focus on actively avoiding recovery measures that add to pollution, such as stimulus packages that bail out the fossil fuel industry. Investments in these sectors are poised to continue in the coming years, but there is strong evidence for redirecting stimulus funding to a climate-positive recovery and supporting the transition by other means, such as reskilling employees.

“International cooperation and collaboration among governments and companies, will be crucial for building back better,” said McCollum. “The differing situations between developed and emerging economies in these times of crisis remind us of the need to look beyond borders and to work together so that a climate-positive recovery benefits everyone, everywhere.”

Read details of the study on the Science website.

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CONTACT:

Hannah Knoch, (615-483-1733, hknoch@vols.utk.edu)​