COVID-19 recovery spending could catalyze transformative change, but time is running out

solar panels at sunset

Imagine it’s 2050 and the world is well on its way to meeting the goals set out in the Paris Climate Agreement. Use of coal, oil, and gas has fallen drastically. Energy and materials are used efficiently. Public transportation thrives; the world’s cities are green, dense, and walkable. Because this green boom was designed by diverse stakeholders with environmental justice in mind, it has created more equitable societies around the world. Everyone agrees, these huge shifts began in the early 2020s with the economic recovery from COVID-19.

That’s a thought experiment, of course, but it could be a reality. A recent paper in the journal Science calculated that if 10 percent of the $12 trillion already committed to economic recovery were invested in clean energy and energy efficiency, the world could be on a path to meeting the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Instead of the modest rate of decarbonization that is currently underway, investments could steer economies strongly away from fossil fuels.

Properly designed, that turn away from fossil fuels could also improve racial, gender, and economic equity. For instance, researchers argue that energy efficiency assistance to African Americans can improve health and provide an equitable solution to energy insecurity. In Portland, Ore., a tree planting program lead to a decrease in violent crime; researchers found the effect was greatest in low-income neighborhoods. Tree planting is an efficiency measure that reduces energy needed for cooling and has been shown to improve mental health and community trust. A solar-powered drip irrigation project in Benin improved crop production, income level, and food security for women farmers.

These examples show that, nationally and globally, a COVID-19 recovery could advance climate and equity goals. Unfortunately, this opportunity is not being grasped to its full potential. According to the Energy Policy Tracker, less than half of global recovery investments in the energy sector are green. Analysis by the Rhodium Group shows that nearly a fifth of the European Union’s recovery spending could be considered green, but most countries have made far weaker commitments. So far, India, China and the U.S. are all directing less than 3 percent of their planned recovery spending in a “green” direction.

While green investments and policies can increase equity, it is hard to say if the green elements of recovery plans put forth so far will be equitable.

The most comprehensive database of stimulus spending, maintained by the IMF, shows little standardization or consistency on equity provisions. When equity considerations do figure into a country’s stimulus package, they rarely apply to green investment. The handful of national plans that integrate equity considerations and green investments are vague and difficult to quantify. Some countries’ COVID-19 stimulus packages refer to a “just transition,” but fail to specify how funds will be spent in an equitable way.

In other words, not much of the world’s planned recovery spending protects the future climate. Of the small fraction that will be green, not much is explicitly designed to be equitable.

There are some exceptions, though, and this is good news. Around the world, bright spots show the potential for COVID-19 funds to fight climate change while simultaneously increasing equity. For example:

  • Nigeria’s Rural Electrification Agency is partnering with the African Development Bank and World Bank to fund the installation of residential solar systems in areas currently without electricity, as well as mini-grids for medical and health centers. 
  • Canada’s COVID-19 plan focuses on protecting and uplifting disproportionately impacted communities, including seniors, low-income families, Indigenous people, differently-abled individuals, and victims of gender-based violence. 
  • -In Ethiopia, a four-year project focused on nature-based solutions to promote water security and community resilience emphasizes equitable development for vulnerable populations, especially women and girls. 
  • Colombia’s COVID-19 stimulus plan, “Compromiso por el Futuro de Colombia,” is organized around five pillars that emphasize the creation of a more sustainable and equitable future for the country. 


These isolated examples represent possibility. But how can that possibility be realized on a larger scale?

On the climate side it is fairly straightforward. From big renewable infrastructure projects to weatherization of the smallest dwellings, recovery dollars should be poured into the clean energy economy. Public transportation, faltering as riders opt for other modes of transport during the pandemic, provides another opportunity for massive investments that can spur recovery, provide good jobs, and keep cities moving. And avoid investment in infrastructure for extracting and burning fossil fuels.

To seize the equity opportunity, decision makers must recognize that equity never improves by accident. Green investments produce improved equity only with intentional planning, which can take many forms. For example:

  • -Designing policy to target marginalized populations, such as Afghanistan‘s renewable energy project aimed at increasing energy security and employment opportunities in rural areas;
  • -Ensuring community input, buy-in, and benefit, as with Ethiopia’s tree-planting initiative, which will “support communities to look after the trees to maturity, and to manage them for their own benefit;”
  • -Cross-sectoral collaboration, such as Ireland’s July Jobs Stimulus, which brings together multiple public agencies, private businesses, and community organizations;
  • -Comprehensive stimulus packages to meet the dual goals of environmental protection and justice, like Singapore’s goal for an overall sustainable economy with greater emphasis on social safety nets designed by diverse Singaporean voices.


If enough money is injected into an economy, recovery will happen. But struggling communities around the world are calling for more than recovery. They are calling for a transformation that includes justice and decisive climate action. Visionary leaders, like those behind the projects we’ve described above, are showing that a transformative recovery is possible. But it won’t happen by accident and it won’t happen with the plans currently on the books. There’s still time for a transformative recovery, but there’s less of it every day.

Cassandra Breeze Ceballos is the Multisolving Program Associate and Elizabeth Sawin is Co-Founder and Co-Director of Climate Interactive a think-tank that helps people find solutions to climate change and related issues like equity, health, food, and water. You can learn more about multisolving on Climate Interactive’s website, where you can also explore a database of green, resilient, equitable recovery measures being taken around the world. You can also follow Sawin on Twitter.