Why it pays to go green
From recovery to green economy
World Environment Day 2022 marks 50 years since the landmark United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. It’s an occasion to celebrate progress on global environmental action and take stock of what still needs to be done to achieve “a healthy planet for the prosperity of all”.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments around the world have committed to different kinds of “green recovery”. The world’s leading economies have delivered over US$20 trillion in COVID-19 recovery investments over the past 18 months, designed to re-boot economies and address the root causes of the nature-climate crises.
But to date, these efforts remain insufficient. An analysis of spending by 50 leading economies, led by Oxford’s Economic Recovery Project and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), finds only $368 billion of $14.6 trillion – 18 percent – of announced recovery spending to be “green”.
UNDP’s own research shows that for every dollar pledged to tackle the climate crisis for the world’s poor, four dollars are spent on fossil fuel subsidies that keep the climate crisis alive.
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Yet the threats of not investing in green recovery include worsening human health, increased food insecurity and more frequent disasters. Climate change alone – beyond the effect of pollution or zoonotic diseases – is projected to have significant effects on mortality by 2100. Air pollution is already the world’s single largest environmental health risk, accounting for an estimated 8 million premature deaths a year.
Today, millions are exposed to acute food and water insecurity in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and Small Island Developing States. By 2050, more than 216 million people face displacement within their own countries, with the largest share in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and the Pacific.
The current crisis in Ukraine highlights the urgency of accelerating green recovery pathways, with its global impacts on energy and food security likely to profoundly impact the most vulnerable people and countries. For example, price hikes in wheat and corn resulting from the ongoing war are likely to spill over onto economies more dependent on Ukrainian and Russian exports, with particular vulnerability in Africa.
To protect humankind, it is imperative to go beyond fragmented efforts to deal with climate change, biodiversity loss, conflicts, refugee crises and pandemics, towards permanent and universal attention to these issues that leaves no one behind. Our future depends on it.
UNDP’s approach to green recovery is grounded in the inextricable link between people’s livelihoods, wellbeing, and the health of the planet. A green recovery must result in transformative change, where socioeconomic and environmental systems interact to combat the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution without trade-offs. Changes include re-purposing fossil fuel subsidies; getting clean energy to more people; maximizing nature-based solutions; and reusing instead of using raw materials for products.
The interlinked nature of the challenges to be tackled through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) demands concerted, integrated, national efforts to find solutions which benefit people and planet, and do not come at the cost of the economy. For example, efforts to decarbonize economies must also increase economic growth, employment opportunities and equality and not reduce them. Research shows that investing in green recovery – from electricity access from renewables to increased forested land area – can reduce extreme poverty by 15 percent compared with a pre-COVID baseline.
UNDP's SDG Impact investors analysis demonstrates that achieving the SDGs will create a world that is more sustainable, equitable and prosperous. It points to ways investors can deliver not only financial results, but positive social and environmental outcomes – for example by unlocking $12 trillion in market opportunities and creating 380 million green jobs.
The Paris Agreement target to limit global warming is currently off course.
Nations must redouble climate efforts if we are to reach the goal of limiting global temperature rise by 2˚C — ideally 1.5˚C — by the end of the century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Protecting and restoring natural assets is one of the best defences against climate change. For instance, restoring 350 million hectares of degraded or deforested landscapes by 2030 could sequester between 1 billion and 3 billion tonnes of CO2 per year, while also generating about $170 billion annually in other ecosystem benefits. Protecting and conserving biodiversity is integral to achieving more than half of all Sustainable Development Goals, as nature underpins half of global gross domestic product, around $44 trillion.
Countries like Costa Rica, prove the value of investing in nature and climate positive solutions for green growth. Of the country’s $2.54 billion COVID recovery budget, 0 percent went to green initiatives. A closer look at the data tells the full story.
When the pandemic struck, Costa Rica was better placed to direct its recovery budget to social protection and other measures that helped expedite its recovery, without costing its climate and sustainable development targets.
Almost 100 percent of the population in the country already have electricity generated through renewables, and deforestation has been reversed, with more than half of its land is covered by forest, compared to just 26 percent in 1983. The country has assessed its natural capital to understand how it can better use natural resources like forests, which account for around 2 percent of gross domestic product from timber, other forest products like nuts and economic activities using these products.
Because of this pre-existing progress towards a green economy, the country has instead earmarked the majority of its recovery budget – $1.73 billion – for job support for formal full-time workers who were suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic, and independent, temporary or informal workers whose income or working hours were reduced.
Mandatory payments by workers to the Social Security Fund have been suspended, and $90 million has been disbursed to support industrial, agricultural and service sectors amidst the crisis, together with infrastructure improvements and emergency COVID-19 medical responses.Instead of detracting from progress, green investment has enabled Costa Rica to spend more on social and economic resilience, with low environmental implications.
UNDP’s 2022-2025 Strategic Plan sets out a bold vision to tackle the planetary emergency as a necessary pathway to achieving the SDGs and securing the health, prosperity and security of people and planet. Tools like the Targeted Scenario Analysis can help assess risk versus reward of investing in nature in the short, medium and long term.
UNDP’s support to countries for a “green, inclusive transition” includes six signature solutions that serve as a blueprint for how countries can make progress on climate change and nature-positive goals, while also ensuring more equitable, prosperous and resilient societies. This includes helping 100 million people escape multidimensional poverty; supporting 500 million people to gain access to clean energy; supporting the implementation of climate and nature-positive action plans in over 100 countries; and working in partnership with national governments and sister agencies like UNEP.