May 7, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Tracking the carbon emissions from the world's coronavirus stimulus

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

EU proposes massive coronavirus rescue package

A protester demonstrates against the EU stimulus package in Warsaw, Poland on May 23. Photo: Omar Marques/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The European Union is considering an $826 billion coronavirus rescue package to fund recovery efforts in response to the bloc's coronavirus-fueled economic strain, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday.

Why it matters: The historic fund would bring the EU closer to fiscal union via a shared budget, the New York Times reports — however, all countries have to agree to the fund for it to be implemented.

U.S. coronavirus updates

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios. This graphic includes "probable deaths" that New York City began reporting on April 14.

More than 100,000 Americans have died of the coronavirus, according to data from Johns Hopkins — a milestone that puts the death toll far beyond some of the most tragic events in U.S. history.

By the numbers: Over 1.6 million have tested positive in the U.S. Nearly 354,000 Americans have recovered and over 15.1 million tests have been conducted. California became the fourth state with at least 100,000 reported cases of the coronavirus on Wednesday, along with Illinois, New Jersey and New York.

Go deeper (2 min. read)ArrowUpdated 14 hours ago - Health

Mark Zuckerberg: Social networks should not be "the arbiter of truth"

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg argued on CNBC's "Squawk Box" Thursday that social media platforms should not police political speech, and that "people should be able to see what politicians say.”

Why it matters: Zuckerberg was responding to Twitter's decision this week to fact-check a pair of President Trump's tweets that claimed that mail-in ballots are "substantially fraudulent." Twitter's label, which directs users to "get the facts" about mail-in voting, does not censor Trump's tweets.