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People Worldwide Said 'Build Back Better.' IEA Chief Says 'Just the Opposite' Is Happening

"As long as countries do not put the right energy policies in place, the economic rebound will see emissions significantly increase in 2021. We will make the job of reaching net zero harder."

People around the world have urged governments to respond to the coronavirus crisis by forging an equitable and green economic recovery. (Photo: Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images)

People around the world have urged governments to respond to the coronavirus crisis by forging an equitable and green economic recovery. (Photo: Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images)

For the past year, climate campaigners and experts have urged heads of state around the world to "build back better" in the wake of the economic devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic.

But rather than pursuing a just and sustainable recovery, countries are perpetuating fossil fuel reliance and jeopardizing their chances of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the head of the International Energy Agency warned Wednesday.

"We are not on track for a green recovery, just the opposite."
—Fatih Bitrol, IEA

"We are not on track for a green recovery, just the opposite," Fatih Bitrol, the executive director of the IEA, told The Guardian. "We have seen global emissions higher in December 2020 than in December 2019. As long as countries do not put the right energy policies in place, the economic rebound will see emissions significantly increase in 2021. We will make the job of reaching net zero harder."

As The Guardian noted, "the IEA's latest figures show global coal use was about 4% higher in the last quarter of 2020 than in the same period in 2019, the clearest indication yet of a potentially disastrous rebound in the use of the dirtiest fossil fuels, following last year's lockdowns around the world when emissions plummeted."

Last year, the United Nations' World Meteorological Organization warned that while the coronavirus-driven global economic slowdown led to a slight reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in 2020, the drop "had no measurable impact on" the ongoing buildup of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.

Emphasizing that the pandemic-related restrictions on commerce were "not a solution for climate change," WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas called for "more sustained and ambitious climate action to reduce emissions to net zero through a compete transformation of our industrial, energy, and transport systems."

Most of the world's biggest economies have pledged to achieve net zero GHG emissions by mid-century, but few have implemented the policies necessary to realize those long-term goals, Birol told The Guardian.

Last year, researchers from the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), the Stockholm Environment Institute, and other institutions explained that even though the world must decrease fossil fuel production by 6% per year between 2020 and 2030 to limit catastrophic global warming, countries are instead planning on increasing fossil fuel production by 2% per year—putting the world on pace to burn more than twice the amount of carbon by the end of the decade than deemed compatible with the Paris Agreement's goal of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C by the end of the century.

And in a report published last month, the UNEP analyzed Covid-related fiscal rescue and recovery efforts in 50 leading economies and found that only 18% of pandemic-induced spending in 2020 could be considered "green."

Birol urged governments to disincentivize fossil fuel use and support the development of renewable energy sources and clean transit technologies. "Governments must provide clear signals to investors around the world that investing in dirty energy will mean a greater risk of losing money," he said. "This unmistakable signal needs to be given by policymakers to regulators, investors, and others."

According to the IEA chief, meeting the objective of net zero GHG emissions by 2050 requires setting stronger 2030 targets for emissions reductions right now, ahead of the U.N.'s Climate Change Conference hosted by the United Kingdom in November 2021.

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"Looking at the energy sector, the next 10 years will be very, very critical," Birol told The Guardian. "If governments put money in clean energy finance, in the context of their economic recovery plans, that will make the challenge less difficult."

As the newspaper reported: 

Birol also urged governments to put in place strong policies to discourage drivers from buying SUVs, which make up nearly half of all cars sold in key economies. The U.S. led the switch to SUVs, but the vehicles–which can emit a third more carbon dioxide than smaller cars–are now increasingly popular in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe, as well as in large emerging economies including China and India.

"It will not be possible to reach our climate goals if SUV sales continue at these rates," he said. "We must either change the technology, to electric vehicles, or change tax policies to provide financial disincentives to consumers to go for the SUV option."

Birol criticized the United States for its inadequate nationally determined contribution (NDC), the country's non-binding commitment to reduce GHG emissions. "NDCs should be ambitious, credible, accountable, and backed with credible energy policies," he said. "The U.S.'s current NDC is not ambitious enough, and not in line with the U.S. leading an international climate campaign."

Having officially rejoined the Paris Agreement earlier this year, the Biden administration is expected to announce a new NDC for 2030 prior to a climate leaders' summit the White House is hosting on Earth Day, which falls on April 22.

In order for the U.S. to do its fair share to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C by the end of the century, the country must slash at least 57% to 63% of its GHG emissions by the end of the decade and provide financial support to developing nations striving to transition away from climate-destroying fossil fuels, according to a recent analysis conducted by Climate Action Tracker.

While praised by some as a positive step, the White House's newly unveiled $2.26 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan has been heavily criticized by progressives who say President Joe Biden's ambition "needs to be way bigger."

In the face of mass unemployment, drastic inequality, and worsening ecological breakdown, climate justice advocates are calling for investing $10 trillion this decade to decarbonize the nation's polluting energy and transportation systems.

"Biden's industry-friendly infrastructure plan squanders one of our last, best chances to stop the climate emergency," Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, warned Wednesday.

"Instead of a Marshall Plan approach that moves our economy to renewable energy," Hartl added, "it includes gimmicky subsidies for carbon capture, fantastically wishes the free market will save us, and fails to take crucial and ambitious steps toward phasing out fossil fuels."

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