May 7, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Tracking the carbon emissions from the world's coronavirus stimulus

Illustration of two stacks made of money releasing smoke
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A new research initiative will track the carbon emissions effects of massive economic recovery packages that governments worldwide are crafting in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Driving the news: Johns Hopkins University yesterday announced plans for rigorous "climate impact assessments" of the efforts as part of a much wider set of pandemic-related research grants.

How it works: Researchers plan to track how stimulus funds are spent and model the avoided emissions that result from the investments.

  • "We are planning to make this tracker available on a website, so that everyone can see how their country’s stimulus packages stack up and hope that other academics will use this data for subsequent projects," JHU's Jonas Nahm, the principal researcher, tells Axios.

The big picture: The project comes amid calls for governments to ensure recovery packages help bolster low-carbon energy tech and industries — and uncertainty about whether this will happen.

  • Officials from the International Energy Agency, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, the United Nations and elsewhere have called for green recovery packages.

Why it matters: A new paper in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy gets to the environmental stakes of the policy response.

  • "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 analysis states.

What they're saying: Nahm similarly says response plans could be an inflection point.

  • "The economic recovery is an opportunity for us to shift the global economy on a more sustainable track, but only if we use stimulus funds for investments that yield long-term structural emissions reductions and avoid those that will cause a rebound in global emissions," said the assistant professor of energy, resources, and environment.
  • Nahm also said in our email exchange that the project is born in part from "frustration over the lack of good data on the emissions impact of the great financial crisis in 2009."

What we don't know: The jury's still out on whether governments' forthcoming economic responses will help emissions-cutting efforts.

  • The Oxford Review paper found that across the G20, the vast majority of the 300-plus substantial policies approved thus far have been "rescue" measures, as opposed to "recovery" efforts that will influence emissions.
  • They conclude that 92% were neither "green" nor "brown" but instead are "colorless," i.e. they "maintain the status quo."

Where it stands: Early signs are mixed. The big new French aid package for Air France-KLM includes restrictions on shorter flights to avoid competition with more climate-friendly high-speed rail, per Bloomberg and other outlets.

  • But in the U.S., Capitol Hill Republicans opposed a Democratic push to tether airline aid to emissions mandates, and the climate provisions were dropped from the huge package approved in late March.

There's no shortage of ideas for how policymakers could construct climate-friendly economic rescue plans in the U.S. and worldwide.

  • Worth noting: A suite of think tanks, industry and civil society groups are publishing recommendations at a rapid clip in recent weeks.

What's new: The Energy Transitions Commission — execs from energy, industrial and banking heavyweights — just floated a 7-pillar platform around renewables, electric cars, "green buildings" and more.

  • It calls for policies ranging from direct investment to private sector incentives to mandates that tether aid to distressed industries to climate commitments.

Go deeper: Coronavirus leads to historic drop in carbon emissions

Go deeper