Curing the economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic should preserve 1 beneficial side effect of the downturn: a historic decrease in carbon emissions.

So says a commentary published this week in the journal Nature: "The trillions devoted to stimulus have, so far, sought to stabilize economies and workers. With a fresh focus that looks further into the future, the next waves of spending must also help to protect the climate."

To do that, the authors say, further stimulus packages "will need tailoring to stay focused on areas that deliver jobs rapidly."

Biggest CO2 drop in decades

The global economic contraction has sent carbon emissions plummeting. The International Energy Agency, an autonomous intergovernmental organization based in Paris, has estimated that they will decline by 8% this year. That would be the biggest annual drop since World War II.

Unfortunately, the commentary says, if recovery spending doesn't specifically target measures to continue decarbonizing the economy, "then emissions will tick upwards once more, as they have after each recession since the first oil shock of the early 1970s. The analysis we present here examines past recoveries to find lessons that help to plot a low-carbon path out of this one."

The authors of the commentary are Ryan Hanna, an assistant research scientist at the University of California, San Diego; Yangyang Xu, an assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University and an affiliated faculty member of the university's Energy Institute; and David G. Victor, a professor at UC San Diego and an adjunct professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

They note that instead of increasing green investment, the United States, Mexico, South Africa, and other countries have rolled back antipollution laws and regulations.

"This trend is worrisome because policy decisions being made now about how to save economies will determine how much CO2 enters the atmosphere over the coming decade," said Hanna, as quoted in a UC San Diego news release.

The commentary says counteracting that trend will require targeted action: "Political leaders—and climate activists who want to help them succeed—need to filter policy actions by what is politically viable. In short, that means coming up with projects that deliver jobs and revenues quickly."

Restoring green jobs

Specifically, the authors suggest incentives for wind and solar power generation (the pandemic has "wiped out 5 years of job growth" in the solar energy sector); infrastructure projects such as power line construction and energy-related retrofits for buildings and public transportation systems; and, to preserve thousands of high-paying jobs, the continued operation of nuclear power plants.

Conversely, the commentary says, the public can't afford and won't support initiatives that impose new consumer costs, such as carbon taxes. Nor should we invest in long-term technologies that still require considerable development before they might pay off, such as carbon capture and hydrogen power.

(Side note: Some of the projects represented by the Cloverly portfolio of carbon offsets and Renewable Energy Credits provide examples of green initiatives that can supply jobs while greening carbon, all at modest cost. You can check them out at cloverly.com/offset-map.)

Finding ways to guide spending toward sustainability is crucial, the commentary authors say. As Victor said in the news release, "The historic drop in recent months was too hard won to be so easily lost."