Reviving economies while reducing emissions

As we aim to extricate ourselves from one crisis, we should not turn a blind eye toward the possibility of simultaneously addressing another: climate change.

As we wrote recently, our immediate focus must be stopping the spread of COVID-19, strengthening our health care system, providing support to affected individuals and companies, and helping our economy recover. At the same time, those of us who can must maintain our focus on other critical priorities. And, as nations launch efforts toward economic recovery, we should consider whether the actions we take can also afford us the opportunity to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

In a special report due out later this year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) is setting its sights on the ambitious goal of making 2019 the year that global emissions finally peaked.

In its latest World Energy Outlook, released in November 2019, the IEA projected that annual global emissions would rise by 5 percent by 2030 (to nearly 35 gigatons of carbon dioxide), which is far above the level needed to avert catastrophic climate change.

In its upcoming report, to be titled “Reducing emissions while bolstering the economy: How COVID-19 economic recovery efforts can be linked to energy transitions,” the IEA will propose a four-pronged approach to significantly bend the emissions curve downward (around 10 gigatons of carbon dioxide lower by 2030). This lower trajectory would be in line with keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels.

The IEA’s approach relies heavily on (1) accelerating energy efficiency and deploying existing low-carbon infrastructure; (2) dealing sensibly with existing fossil fuel and nuclear assets and infrastructure; (3) looking to innovation to boost longer-term emission reductions (i.e., beyond 2030); and (4) changes in behavior and materialization, i.e., how we use, repurpose, and recycle materials.

In fleshing out these strategies, IEA is prioritizing policy actions that not only reduce emissions and increase resilience to climate change, but also create jobs and economic opportunities. The policies are geared toward existing technologies and lower-cost measures with the potential to deliver a bigger bang for the buck. C2ES has proposed many of these measures in the past and in our recent Getting to Zero report.

Though the numbers have not yet been crunched, the IEA expects the first two prongs to produce the greatest quantity of emission reductions. Here’s how the four prongs could shape up:

  1. Countries should enact “no-regrets” policies that encourage efficiency in buildings, vehicles, consumer appliances, and industrial equipment to reduce energy consumption and create jobs. Similarly, extending subsidies for wind, solar, and battery storage and deploying more smart-grid technologies will help grow these burgeoning industries, lower the carbon intensity of electricity, and increase resiliency to a range of impacts.
  2. With regard to “legacy” energy assets, the steep decline in oil prices represents a golden opportunity for countries to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, which distort markets and artificially increase consumption of oil, natural gas, and coal. Additionally, countries should phase out inefficient vehicle stock. And, in a period of low natural gas prices, countries can accelerate coal-to-gas switching, while using a range of technologies to quickly identify and mitigate methane leakage. Wherever possible, countries should seek to extend the life of existing nuclear power plants and make a more concerted effort to deploy carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) technology in the power and industrial sectors.
  3. Countries should support research for key technologies like energy-dense batteries, biotechnology and advanced biofuels. Incentivizing companies to invest in high-risk, high-reward projects to commercialize large-scale technologies like CCUS, small modular reactors, advanced nuclear, hydrogen-based steel production, and ammonia-fueled ships is important – these technologies will be critical for emission reductions as we move beyond 2030. Also, using standards and price signals can help establish demand for low-carbon products.
  4. Changes in behavior can also lead to emission reductions, including greater use of rail over aviation and reducing travel by convening via teleconference. In cities, increased use of public transport, shared mobility, walking and biking can make an impact. In homes, setting thermostats more modestly to moderate cooling and heating, as well as increasing recycling efforts, can help.

The global economy will slowly but surely recover from the current crisis, but without specific climate actions, emissions will begin to rise again. This presents a unique opportunity to avoid a return to the status quo. We can institute measures to help economic recovery in 2020 and also accelerate the clean energy transition, boost resilience to climate and other impacts, deliver jobs and a strong economy, and create a much better future by just possibly making 2019 the year that global emissions peaked.