The executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned that the next several months will be pivotal in reshaping global economies to prevent a rebound in carbon emissions and the climate change that will come with it.
In an interview, Fatih Birol told The Guardian that the trillions of dollars that governments around the globe will pour into pandemic stimulus packages can be used to develop new green jobs and prevent a return to pre-pandemic levels of carbon emissions.
Pouring stimulus money into building energy upgrades could play an important role in a green economy strategy that would permanently lower carbon emissions.
“This year is the last time we have, if we are not to see a carbon rebound,” Birol told the newspaper. “The next three years will determine the course of the next 30 years and beyond. If we do not, we will surely see a rebound in emissions. If emissions rebound it is very difficult to see how they will be brought down in the future.”
Global carbon dioxide emissions plunged this spring in the wake of lockdowns, travel restrictions, and business and factory closings. In early April, emissions were 17% lower than they were a year earlier. But, The New York Times reported, by mid-June many CO2 emissions were once again on the rise and stood only about 5% below 2019 levels.
China has already returned to pre-pandemic emission levels, and India, the European Union, Britain, and the United States were not far behind.
Citing a study in Nature Climate Change, the newspaper said its authors were surprised at how quickly greenhouse gas emissions had come back. But they pointed out that any gains in lowering carbon emissions would be temporary unless fundamental changes are made in the world’s economies.
“We still have the same cars, the same power plants, the same industries that we had before the pandemic,” said Corinne Le Quéré, a British climate scientist and lead author of the study. “Without big structural changes, emissions are likely to come back.”
Proposing a sustainable recovery plan
Using the trillions in stimulus funds to make far-reaching changes in business and society is the basis of an IEA report published this month.
“As they make economic recovery plans, policy makers are having to make enormously consequential decisions in a very short space of time,” the report says. “These decisions will shape economic and energy infrastructure for decades to come and will almost certainly determine whether the world has a chance of meeting its long-term energy and climate goals.”
The “Sustainable Recovery Plan” outlines steps that could be taken in the next several years in six key economic sectors, including buildings and electricity. The IEA said the plan shows it’s possible to simultaneously encourage economic growth, create millions of jobs and put emissions into decline. The plan would require a global investment of about $1 trillion a year for the next three years (or about 0.7% of global gross domestic product).
The analysis said investments in just two areas—building efficiency and wind and solar energy—could produce 3 million new jobs. Among the recommendations:
- Retrofit existing buildings and make new construction more efficient. IEA estimates that between 9 and 30 new jobs would be created for every $1 million invested in the building sector. Existing efficiency programs could be ramped up quickly, while spending more on public housing and government buildings would create a pipeline of projects that would help keep people employed.
- Replace old household appliances with energy efficient, smart models. The pandemic has disrupted industrial supply chains globally and meant the closure of many retail outlets. This, in turn, has resulted in deferred or canceled appliance purchases and slowed the rate of efficiency improvements. Spending here would create between 7 and 16 jobs for every $1 million, helping the industry and lowering energy use at the same time.
- Improve access to “clean cooking.” Some 2.6 billion people still cook with biomass, kerosene or coal, the IEA says, resulting in household air pollution that kills about 2.5 million people prematurely each year. Clean cooking would be possible for between 5,000 and 10,000 households for every $1 million in spending.
The average annual energy retrofit rate for buildings is now less than 1% in most major markets, the report says, “well below the level required to achieve sustainability objectives.” Adding insulation, installing better windows, and investing in more efficient equipment such as heat pumps all are steps the report recommends for new and existing buildings.
Deep-energy retrofits of old buildings could reduce energy demand from space heating by 2/3 or more, the analysis said, while reducing or eliminating emissions when renewable energy sources are added. Retrofitting 20% of the buildings in advanced economies over the next five years would reduce emissions from space heating alone by 20%.
In the section on electricity, the report says the pandemic has reduced the demand for power by 20% or more in countries with full lockdowns. Revenues for providers of electricity will fall by about 7% this year globally, a potential threat to the 17 million jobs in the sector. The report recommends modernizing utility grids and investing more money in solar and wind energy sources. The number of new jobs that would be created during the construction phase by the investment varied, from less than two to about 14 per $1 million spent.
Scott Gibson is a contributing writer at Green Building Advisor and Fine Homebuilding magazine. Photos by the author.