Most countries economic responses to the Covid-19 pandemic are directly contradictory with their climate change goals, including those of Australia, with researchers warning that a ramp-up of investment in fossil fuel projects is undermining progress on tackling climate change.
In new research published in the journal Nature Climate Change, researchers estimated that global greenhouse gas emissions fell by around seven per cent throughout 2020, due largely to Covid-19 related disruptions, but that there were signs that emissions were already returning to pre-Covid levels.
The research has been jointly authored by scientists from the CSIRO and the University of East Anglia and pointed out the contradictory nature of government responses to the economic impacts of Covid-19 – including from countries like Australia ramping up their investment in fossil fuels – with their international commitments to reduce emissions to tackle climate change.
“To change the trajectory in global CO2 emissions in the long term, the underlying drivers also need to change,” the researchers say. “The growing commitments by countries to reduce their emissions to net zero within decades provides a substantial strengthening of climate ambition.”
However, the researchers noted that “most current COVID-19 recovery plans are in direct contradiction with countries’ climate commitments.”
The Morrison government provides a clear example of the kind of contradictory response singled out by the researchers after pouring public funds into a “gas led economic recovery”.
The Morrison government has committed $50 million to support a “gas led” economic recovery to Covid-19, and is actively considering making a direct investment in a new gas fired generator at Kurri Kurri in New South Wales.
The researchers argued that the falls in emissions triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic will not be long term reductions unless governments actively support increased investment in lower emissions technologies.
“Although the measures to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic will reduce emissions by about 7 per cent in 2020, they will not, on their own, cause lasting decreases in emissions because these temporary measures have little impact on the fossil fuel-based infrastructure that sustains the world economy,” the research paper says.
“However, economic stimuli on national levels could soon change the course of global emissions if investments towards green infrastructure are enhanced while investments encouraging the use of fossil energy are reduced.”
The researchers estimated that global emissions fell by around 2.6 GtCO2 in 2020, an unprecedented fall in global emissions. However, the researchers noted that this is around the level of emissions reductions that need to be achieved annually for the next decade needed to limit global warming to below 2 degrees.
“A 2.6 GtCO2 decrease in global annual emissions has never been observed before,” the research paper says. “Yet cuts of 1–2 GtCO2 per year are needed throughout the 2020s and beyond to avoid exceeding warming levels in the range 1.5 °C to well below 2 °C, the ambition of the Paris Agreement. The drop in CO2 emissions from responses to COVID-19 highlights the scale of actions and international adherence needed to tackle climate change.”
The researchers said that over the five years since the creation of the Paris Agreement, a total of 64 countries recorded falls in their greenhouse gas emissions – but that emissions increased from the remaining 150 nations, including Australia.
CSIRO Research Scientist, and Executive Director of the Global Carbon Project, Dr Pep Canadell, said much more needed to be done to ensure global emissions were on track to limit global warming to safe levels.
“Global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels dropped to unprecedented levels in 2020. However, our new analysis shows that 64 countries had already declining emissions before the pandemic,” Canadell, who co-authored the study, said.
“Sixty-four countries together were responsible for a decline of 160 million tonnes of CO2 per year, an amount that is about one-tenth of what IPCC calls globally to stabilize the climate to no more than 2C from the pre-industrial levels.”
“Both, more stringent mitigation efforts are required while support for the 150 other countries whose emissions are increasing is needed. The opportunity presented by the pre-covid country emission declines, the big drop in emissions due to the pandemic, and the major infrastructure investment as part of the economic recovery plan continues to provide a unique opportunity to accelerate progress towards decarbonization, an opportunity not fully realized in most countries,” Canadell added.
The latest emissions data published by the Australian government showed that national emissions increased in the third quarter of 2020, as economic activity and domestic travel patterns started to show signs of a return to normal.