Home >Lounge >Features >Covid-19: G20 countries bet on fossil fuels for economic recovery

Ever since the economic fallout of the covid-19 pandemic became clear, countries began to announce stimulus packages designed to see them bounce back from the slowdown. In the past few months, there has been much talk of a “green" economic revival, focusing on a transition to clean energy, keeping in mind the greater threat of the climate crisis.

According to new research data released in the public domain on 15 July, much of this talk has been revealed to be hollow. It reveals that G20 countries have made investment commitments worth $151 billion dollars towards fossil fuels in an effort to aid economic recovery. Just 20% of these projects are subject to requirements such as climate targets or pollution reduction targets. In comparison, clean energy projects worth $89 billion have been committed to, but only 29% of these are subject to environmental safeguards, and can be said to be truly “clean".

The data has been supplied by 14 international organizations, including six core members: the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), Columbia University, the Institute for Global Environment Strategies (IGES), the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), Oil Change International (OCI) and Overseas Development Institute (ODI). On 15 July, the data was uploaded on to an interactive website, Energypolicytracker.org.

The research serves an important fact-checking role because it analyzes over 200 individual policies from G20 nations. These are all in the public domain, but when seen as a part of a larger picture, the result is disheartening for anyone who’d hoped that climate concerns would not be put on the backburner. “The COVID-19 crisis and governments’ responses to it are intensifying the trends that existed before the pandemic struck. National and subnational jurisdictions that heavily subsidized the production and consumption of fossil fuels in previous years have once again thrown lifelines to oil, gas, coal, and fossil fuel-powered electricity," says Ivetta Gerasimchuk, sustainable energy expert with IISD, and a project lead on Energypolicytracker.org.

The impacts of climate change are increasing. Sea level near Mumbai is rising at the rate of 3cm per decade. Satish Bate
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The impacts of climate change are increasing. Sea level near Mumbai is rising at the rate of 3cm per decade. Satish Bate (Photo: Satish Bate)

Looking at the country-wise break up of energy investments throws up some interesting data. While the G20 has committed at least $10.20 billion to coal, India alone accounts for $6.77 billion of that amount. Counting oil and gas, India’s fossil fuel commitments come to at least $8.90 billion. In comparison, India’s clean energy commitments are $1.21 billion. The Indian government’s energy mix certainly gives out mixed signals. “The government has demonstrated a firm resolve to support the renewable energy sector through this period of economic slowdown. However, the fossil fuel industry has also received support, in many cases long-term benefits beyond the immediate needs of the crisis. The introduction of commercial coal mining auctions, removal of the coal washing requirement, proposed dilution of environment clearance rules, are only some of the measures that raise alarm," says IISD’s Anjali Vishwamohan. On June 18, prime minister Narendra Modi announced the auction of 41 coal blocks for commercial mining under the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan. Under the same scheme, on July 10, he inaugurated a 750Mw solar power project in Rewa, Madhya Pradesh.

But what of the other G20 countries? The US leads the way for dirty energy with commitments of $58.12 billion towards fossil fuels. Of its clean energy commitments, merely $10 million worth of projects can be said to be truly clean with appropriate safeguards. That’s way behind even India’s commitments. China’s commitments, meanwhile, add up to $17.27 billion towards potentially clean energy, and $3.99 billion towards fossil fuels with no climate or pollution targets. Russia’s energy commitments are entirely made up of fossil fuel policies, worth $494.76 million. European countries aren’t doing much better, with Germany committing to $16.91 billion towards fossil fuels, and $27.09 billion towards clean energy (of which only $2.20 billion is with appropriate safeguards).

When the World Bank announced a bleak global economic outlook in early June, forecasting a 5.2% contraction in global GDP, many feared that countries would kickstart their economies by resorting to fossil fuel-intensive policies. And that’s what seems to be occurring. The International Energy Agency’s Global Energy Review 2020 reported an over 5% fall in global CO2 emissions for the first quarter of year (as compared to Q1 2019) due to pandemic containment measures. However, as economies double down on fossil fuels, this trend could well be reversed. Meanwhile, according to independent calculations by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the UK Met Office, there’s a 50-75% chance that 2020 will be the hottest year on record, overtaking the current record holder 2016. Even if that doesn’t happen, NOAA is certain 2020 will be one of the hottest five years ever recorded.

In this scenario, the Energypolicytracker.org data, which will reportedly continue to evolve as countries add newer projects and policies, could serve as an important resource. According to the organizations behind the data, the site will soon reflect the energy commitments of countries outside the G20 as well. However, G20 countries accounted for 75% of global emissions in 2010, so the energy policies these countries pursue to come out of the pandemic slowdown would be an important indicator. “The recovery from the coronavirus crisis needs to result in an acceleration of the energy transition," says Tom Moerenhout, professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. “If we miss that opportunity and embark on another fossil fuel-powered economic recovery then it is not likely but certain that our planet’s already high fever will turn into heatstroke."

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