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Future policy must deliver both economic and climate goals – and here's how...

Recovery packages can either kill two birds with one stone – setting the global economy on a pathway towards net-zero emissions – or lock us into a fossil system from which it will be nearly impossible to escape

Juliana O'Rourke
10 May 2020

 

A new Working Paper from Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment has identified several COVID recovery policies that can deliver both economic and climate goals – including transport decarbonisation and net-zero infrastructure. Such stimulus policies would deliver large economic multipliers, reasonably quickly, and 'shift our emissions trajectory towards net zero.

'The recovery packages can either kill these two birds with one stone – setting the global economy on a pathway towards net-zero emissions – or lock us into a fossil system from which it will be nearly impossible to escape, writes report lead author Cameron Hepburn, Director of the Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment.

Countries around the world have made a start by boosting levels of walking and cycling, including England. The Department for Transport's transport decarbonisation plan, launched pre-COVID, is also a major step in the right direction. Let's hope similar policies across Government Ministries and Departments will follow suit.

Hepburn notes that COVID-19 has already triggered major shifts in individual behaviours, social practices, beliefs, the role of the government in the economy, and relationships between nations and international institutions. These shifts have occurred on remarkably rapid timescales. Which of these changes will have lasting consequences, he asks, and what are the climate implications? 

The extent to which behavioural adaptations become embedded post-crisis is affected by policy choices during the recovery period, as well as the extent and severity of lockdown measures. Behavioural interventions have historically been more effective during times of transition, he adds.

A turning point in progress on climate change

The COVID-19 crisis could mark a turning point in progress on climate change. This year, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will fall by more than in any other year on record The percentage declines likely in 2020, however, would need to be repeated, year after year, to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Instead, emissions will rebound once mobility restrictions are lifted and economies recover, unless governments intervene. 'There are reasons to fear that we will leap from the COVID frying pan into the climate fire,' writes Hepburn.

This view is in line with work done by Zeke Hausfather, the Director of Climate and Energy at The Breakthrough Institute, who says: 'The temporary nature of COVID-19 impacts on emissions — and its minimal effects on long-term climate change — highlights the fact that technology-driven decarbonising is the only sustainable pathway to achieve long-term reductions in co2 emissions.'  

The COVID-19 crisis is likely to have dramatic consequences for progress on climate change. Imminent fiscal recovery packages could entrench or partly displace the current fossil-fuel-intensive economic system

The COVID-19 crisis is likely to have dramatic consequences for progress on climate change. Imminent fiscal recovery packages could entrench or partly displace the current fossil-fuel-intensive economic system. The study surveyed 231 central bank officials, finance ministry officials, and other economic experts from G20 countries on the relative performance of 25 major fiscal recovery archetypes across four dimensions: speed of implementation, economic multiplier, climate impact potential, and overall desirability. 

It identifies five policies with high potential on both economic multiplier and climate impact metrics, all of which are relevant across the future of transport and places: 

  • clean physical infrastructure 

  • building efficiency retrofits

  • investment in education and training

  • natural capital investment

  • clean R&D 

In lower- and middle income countries (LMICs) rural support spending is of particular value while clean R&D is less important. These recommendations are contextualised through analysis of the short-run impacts of COVID-19 on greenhouse gas curtailment and plausible medium-run shifts in the habits and behaviours of humans and institutions.

In recent days, there have been many high profile calls that Governments should not use taxpayer cash to rescue fossil fuel companies and carbon-intensive industries. Talking to the Guardian,  UN secretary general António Guterres said that economic rescue packages for the coronavirus crisis should be devoted to businesses that cut greenhouse gas emissions and create green jobs. 'It must not be bailing out outdated, polluting, carbon-intensive industries.’

 
 
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