The world’s botched Covid-19 green recovery, in charts

Airlines are a big part of the reason the post-pandemic economic recovery is a stimulus bonanza for fossil fuels.
Airlines are a big part of the reason the post-pandemic economic recovery is a stimulus bonanza for fossil fuels.
Image: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/File Photo
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With governments spending trillions of dollars to prop up the global economy, they could have grabbed the opportunity to accelerate the transition to clean energy. Countries could have prioritized stimulus funding for, say, energy efficient building retrofits over coal-fired power plants.

But so far, like after the 2008 financial crisis, recovery packages have significantly favored fossil fuels. Across the G20 countries, for every dollar of stimulus funding committed to clean energy, $1.50 goes to airlines, oil companies, and other fossil fuel-reliant industries, according to a new dataset of stimulus measures compiled by more than a dozen climate research outfits.

The analysis provides the most detailed picture yet of how far off-track the world is from a green recovery, by looking at the strings attached to individual funding streams. Unconditional fossil fuel funding has no strings; conditional means access to the funding is predicated on agreeing to new emissions targets.

Of the $150 billion G20 countries have committed to fossil fuel recovery, only around $30 billion has emissions conditions built in. In comparison, only $88 billion has been allotted to clean energy stimulus.

The majority of that clean energy stimulus actually comes with conditions, too; sectors like electric vehicles have the potential to contribute to emissions without additional regulation (for example, to ensure that they’re able to draw power from zero-carbon sources). A smaller pot of unconditional clean energy stimulus goes to sectors like solar and wind that, from a climate perspective, are unambiguously beneficial.

Two-thirds of the total no-strings-attached fossil fuel funding so far is from the US, mostly in the form of bailout support for airlines. France’s fossil funding is also mostly airline-related, but tied to emissions targets. In China, nearly all of the clean energy support comes in the form of electric vehicle subsidies.

A few caveats to bear in mind: This analysis only counts funding that has been officially committed. Stimulus funds that are still in discussion, like the European Union’s $850 billion green recovery plan, are not included.

In addition, the dollar amounts aren’t always a good proxy for carbon emissions. In terms of damage to the climate, a dollar spent on coal isn’t necessarily offset by a dollar spent on solar, especially since fossil fuel infrastructure tends to last for decades. And the new analysis only accounts for spending, not for regulatory or policy changes. Moves like China’s accelerated permitting of coal-fired power plants are a major factor in whether the economic recovery helps or hurts the climate.

Keeping track of these stimulus measures, which are spread out across government agencies in nearly two dozen countries, is a tedious undertaking that only promises to get more so as the recovery effort continues. But if you’re interested, stay tuned to the new website, where researchers from the Stockholm Environment Institute, Columbia University, and elsewhere are planning to file regular updates.