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UN: Too little of recovery spending fights climate change

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., celebrate after signing the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, during an enrollment ceremony on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, March 10, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., celebrate after signing the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, during an enrollment ceremony on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, March 10, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Nations are spending unprecedented amounts of money to bounce back from the pandemic and the economic shock it triggered, but less than one dollar out of five spent so far will help fight global warming and heal nature, a new United Nations report says.

The top economies have laid out more than $14.6 trillion to date to rebound from last year's crisis, with nearly $2 trillion of that aimed at long-term recovery. But only $341 billion — about 18% — of that COVID-19 economic recovery money is going to green spending and “building back better,” according to Wednesday’s report by the United Nations Environment Programme and Oxford University.

“It seems like the world is trying to put out a house fire with a garden hose, while a perfectly good hydrant is available just next door,” said report lead author Brian O’Callaghan of the Oxford University’s Economic Recovery Project. He said the report highlights missed opportunities, singling out Australia where only 2% of $130 billion in recovery spending is green-oriented.

The report focuses on long-term spending, such as on roads, buildings and energy projects, as opposed to quick relief, such as unemployment checks and other emergency relief to keep people and businesses afloat.

Countries in a hurry often choose familiar economic methods instead of investing in “a sustainable inclusive future” which involves shifting the way society acts, said German environment minister Svenja Schulze.

The report came out the same day that the U.S. Congress approved a $1.9 trillion pandemic rescue plan engineered by President Joe Biden, who plans to sign the bill Friday. It is not included in the report because it is more short-term and too recent, O'Callaghan said.

The United States spends about one quarter of its COVID-19 long-term recovery money — a fraction of overall pandemic spending — on green projects. The report places the United States in the “potential to act” category behind places like Norway, Germany, Finland, Canada and France, but ahead of China, Japan, the United Kingdom, Russia and Saudi Arabia in percentage of recovery spending that is green.

“On the whole so far global green spending does not match the severity of the three planetary crises of climate change, nature loss and pollution,” wrote U.N. Environment chief Inger Andersen.

If the world concentrates on clean energy spending it can come out of this crisis “definitely more able to deal with the abrupt shock that climate change demonstrably is imposing on our societies,” said International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva. She said the world needs to “create more jobs and better economic opportunities by investing money in the right way, not the wrong way.”

With 82% of the recovery spending not being green, it supports the status quo which is heading in the wrong direction in terms of the environment and income inequality, O’Callaghan said, adding that about 2% to 3% of the spending is actually “dirty," boosting use of climate-damaging fossil fuel.

O’Callaghan mentioned “unconditional airline bailouts that could have so easily been green” praising France for making airlines address climate change in its rescue package. The report singles out the United States, South Korea, South Africa and the United Kingdom for not doing that.

The report highlights Norway, Denmark, Finland and Germany spending nearly half or more than half of large recovery packages on green projects.

Last December then-President Donald Trump signed a U.S. pandemic recovery package that included billions of dollars to promote wind and solar power and sharply reduce coolants in air conditioners and refrigerators, measures that got praise from environmental groups. That came despite Trump's repeated dismissal of the science behind climate change and his promotion of petroleum and coal industries.

Lawmakers pointed to $100 million in environmental spending in Wednesday's newly passed bill, including efforts to improve air monitoring.

Of the $3.44 trillion of U.S. spending on COVID-19 through the end of 2020, only $38 billion could be clearly categorized as recovery and about $10 billion of that spending has been green, O’Callaghan said. So the report puts the U.S. in the “yet to act on recovery,” category, with Biden promising “ambitious plans,” he said.

The Biden administration has promised a $2 trillion green infrastructure package. As a candidate, Biden pledged massive investment to cut fossil fuel emissions, from building more charging stations for electric cars and developing carbon capture and battery storage to making the nation's power plants and transportation networks far cleaner burning.

The report calls the still-to-be-finalized infrastructure plans “a significant acceleration in U.S. green spending in 2021.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden believes the U.S. and other countries “can create good-paying union jobs that are also consistent with their objective of addressing the climate crisis. I can assure you he intends to deliver on the promise he delivered on the campaign trail.”

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and a close Biden ally, said lawmakers and the administration are already at work on the infrastructure legislation, and said he hoped to have it passed and signed by Biden by the end of September.

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Reporters Matthew Daly and Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.