Economic Giants Are Restarting. Here’s What It Means for Climate Change.


As countries begin rolling out plans to restart their economies after the brutal shock inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic, the three biggest producers of planet-warming gases — the European Union, the United States and China — are writing scripts that push humanity in very different directions.

Europe this week laid out a vision of a green future, with a proposed recovery package worth more than $800 billion that would transition away from fossil fuels and put people to work making old buildings energy-efficient.

China has given a green light to build new coal plants but it also declined to set specific economic growth targets for this year, a move that came as a relief to environmentalists because it reduces the pressure to turn up the country’s industrial machine quickly.

What course these giant economies set is crucial if the world is to have a fighting chance to head off the blistering heat, droughts and wildfires that are the hallmarks of a fast-warming planet.

Just as their recovery plans are taking shape, though, the political pressure on world leaders switched off: On Thursday, the United Nations announced that the next round of global climate talks, which had been slated for Glasgow in November, would be delayed.

The Glasgow talks are the most important climate meeting since the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015, after 20 years of negotiations. Under the Paris pact, which was largely designed to work through peer pressure among nations at annual meetings, world leaders were expected to announce revised targets this year for reducing emissions.

That peer pressure is now suspended for a year. Advocates for climate action urged national leaders to not squander the time.

“If the necessary climate action can be embedded in recovery efforts then this year will have been a year when we pivoted for good,” said Rachel Kyte, a former United Nations climate official and now the dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “If we are distracted from climate action and fumble in the recovery, then we will have pivoted to an even darker road.”

Not only has the Glasgow meeting been postponed, global protests demanding climate action have come to an abrupt halt and the pandemic has reinforced the impulse of nationalist leaders to reject international cooperation.

“It’s now vital that countries make use of this extra time and ensure their economic recovery plans are climate smart and do not prop up fossil fuel companies,” said Mohamed Adow of Power Shift Africa, an advocacy group based in Nairobi. “It would be shameful if rich countries recharge their economies on the backs of the climate vulnerable.”

“It will be a very, very challenging way forward in terms of international climate momentum,” said Li Shuo, a Beijing-based policy adviser for Greenpeace. “Covid-19 should be interpreted as a very negative factor for international climate cooperation.”

A great deal of “horse trading,” Mr. Li added, is now taking place among Chinese officials. The country’s recovery package, estimated in the range of $800 billion, has been formally proposed but much remains unclear about how it will be spent. In addition to suspending growth targets for this year, the government in Beijing is giving its blessing to new coal plants, and signaled that environmental impact reviews could be relaxed.

“A lot is still in the air,” Mr. Li said, though he noted that China’s leaders tend to prioritize economic and social stability in the near term.

The biggest unknown is the presidential election: The presumptive Democratic candidate, Joseph R. Biden Jr., has pledged to rejoin the Paris Agreement, vowing that the United States would “take a back seat to no one when it comes to fighting climate change.”

The European Union faces its own uncertainties. The bloc’s executive branch, which has already proposed to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050, still has to sell the package to 27 national leaders who don’t always agree on the speed of a green transition.

“The recovery packages can either kill these two birds with one stone — setting the global economy on a pathway toward net-zero emissions — or lock us into a fossil system from which it will be nearly impossible to escape,” the authors wrote.

And hundreds of groups representing health professionals urged the leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies to turn away from fossil fuel subsidies.



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