Or why today's Budget matters so much
Well, that didn't last long. The fact that emissions are rebounding fast now that vaccines are being rolled out and lockdown measures around the world are being gradually eased was to be expected. But the International Energy Association's (IEA) confirmation yesterday that global energy related emissions were two per cent higher in December 2020 than in December 2019 is still surprising for all the wrong reasons.
No one expects emissions to fall this year, given they were down a massive six per cent last year, as factories shuttered, commuter trains sat idle, and aircraft were grounded. As the economic recovery gathers pace this year, albeit unevenly, emissions are bound to rise. But there were hopes that green recovery policies, the proven effectiveness of grids with high renewables penetration, and the continuation of some lower emission lockdown habits, such as increased home working and decreased air travel, could combine to ensure global emissions peaked in 2019.
Now the IEA's data for December and its assertion that we are already "returning to carbon intensive as business-as-usual" has left that hope looking wildly optimistic. Some greener lockdown habits will no doubt stick, but it seems they will be more than offset - in the short to medium term at least - by surging pent up consumer demand. Add in potentially huge demand for travel as soon as people feel that it is safe to venture further afield and it is easy to see how the early 2020s could again set new records for global emissions - and at time when scientists and the UN are warning emissions need to be falling at an unprecedentedly rapid rate.
If global energy emissions can still rise two per cent year-on-year when much of Europe and the US are still subject to varying levels of lockdown and the aviation industry is more contracted than at any point in modern history, then the scale of the decarbonisation challenge looks more daunting than ever.
The hope is this stark fact provides the wake-up call that is urgently required, because it is not too late to engineer the peak in emissions that is so desperately needed. As the IEA pointed out yesterday, there are causes for optimism, largely centred on plummeting clean tech costs, the net zero movement, and recent climate commitments from the EU, China, and the new US administration. But decarbonising an economy is like the proverbial oil tanker; decisions taken now can take months and years to deliver the desired outcomes. As the economy restarts it will necessarily do so using the same operating system it had going into the coronavirus crash. Reprogramming using lower carbon code will inevitably take time. Bugs will have to be ironed out.
Which is why the decisions taken over the next nine months, starting with today's Budget from the British government are so vital. They can either put economies on a path towards rapid decarbonisation over the next decade. Or they can engage in some green window dressing and leave the underlying business-as-usual trend broadly unchanged.
As UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres highlighted again today, the absolute bare minimum starting point is an immediate end to all new coal power projects and coal power financing everywhere in the world. That needs to be followed by comprehensive energy and ground transport system decarbonisation plans based on proven existing technologies and including ambitious energy efficiency and climate resilience infrastructure programmes, alongside a massive uptick in R&D spending focused on tackling emissions from hard to abate sectors. All the literature suggests such an approach would deliver massive net economic benefits in addition to the obvious environmental and health gains.
If the green recovery rhetoric is to be taken in anyway seriously such policies are non-negotiable. The alternative, as the IEA makes plain, is very much the wrong sort of recovery: a return to high carbon business-as-usual that makes keeping temperature increases below 1.5C - and soon after 2C - practically impossible. We may have to wait a few more years for peak global emissions, but the time is very much now.
A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing newsletter, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.