1 Background

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis (late 2007–2009), a strong focus was given to the economic recovery and growth at the great expense of environmental concerns (Tienhaara, 2010). Not surprisingly, many governments prioritised short-term economic gains over long-term environmental sustainability. Economic recovery and environmental policies thus remained largely separate and non-integrated (Barbier, 2020). However, the recent coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak highlighted the interwovenness of economic, social and environmental systems and the need for a more joined together approach to recovery (Abbasi et al., 2022b). Suggestions for green stimulus packages were put forward soon after the initial economic response, and a general opinion was formed that policymakers were more receptive to green stimulus than in 2007–2009 (Abbasi, 2022a; McClelland, 2023; Obergassel, 2021; Pollitt, 2021).

While the pandemic’s effects on emissions levels were only temporaryFootnote 1, the green measures undertaken in the pursuit of economic recovery may have a wide-ranging impact not only on the economy but also on the magnitude and trajectory of emissions (Pollitt, 2021). The European Union (EU) has thus, for example, earmarked a significant share of its COVID-19 recovery package for climate action (over 30%), including investments in renewable energy, clean hydrogen and sustainable transportation (European Commission, 2021). Conversely, the USA, Japan, Canada, and the UK have devoted less than 10% of their resources to the cause (Vo et al., 2023). Without adequate financing and the necessary resources, these countries might be unable to join the green recovery, leading them to rely on fossil fuels as a means of reviving their economies, much like the situation in India, China and South Africa (Nahm et al., 2022). One of the main questions in this regard is whether green recovery programmes can be effective in promoting the green transition.

Policymakers often distinguish macroeconomic stabilisation from structural reform (Bénassy-Quéré et al., 2010). To better explain these concepts, stabilisation policies seek to adjust aggregate demand when it is not in line with potential output, while structural reform concentrates on augmenting potential output itself. Structural reforms designed to correct critical environmental market failures, where the climate externality is the largest, are called green policies. These reforms aim to promote the more efficient allocation of resources, moving from more to less polluting forms of production and consumption (Brahmbhatt, 2021). The greatest effects of structural reforms are said to be seen in the medium- to long-term, namely within 5 to 10 years. This means the long-term impacts of post-pandemic responses to future emission estimations are expected to depend considerably on the structural alterations made to the current energy system (Hans et al., 2022; Hoang et al., 2021).

It is well accepted that implementing sustainable and regenerative policies can strengthen the state of the economy (Pollitt, 2023). Hepburn et al. (2020) assessed low-carbon policies like building energy efficiency retrofits and clean energy infrastructure and found that they create strong economic multipliers. Likewise, Lahcen et al. (2020) used a macroeconomic model to demonstrate the good economic results associated with the green recovery in O’Callaghan et al. (2022) applied a machine learning algorithm to conduct quantitative analysis of the related literature, which revealed that energy efficiency and investments in natural capital are perceived to be swift policies, whereas investments in clean energy infrastructure and clean transport infrastructure tend to be slower-acting measures. The authors also presented evidence showing that green investments generate more job opportunities and higher fiscal multipliers than non-green investments. Nonetheless, based on similar insights Chiappinelli et al. (2021) outlined a policy package to conduce investments in clean technologies.

Existing studies underscore the need to assess the thematic relationships in the green recovery literature to ensure successful environmental policies in the years to come (e.g. Abbasi and Choukolaei, 2023; O’Callaghan et al., 2022). This short communication seeks to address the lack of research on the subject by generating new data, analysing and discussing critical distinguishing characteristics of the scientific literature to inspire further scholarly and political endeavours in particular directions. Our debate deviates from previous articles with respect to its approach to uncovering influential thematic connections derived from recent green recovery initiatives. Consistent with the evidence (Agrawala et al., 2020), we postulate that sustainable progress is contingent upon well-structured, large-scale and timely green stimulus programmes.

Accordingly, the logic behind our approach is to identify links between articles whose content is related to green stimulus and the green recovery. The aim is to: (1) use bibliometric data to objectively identify impactful thematic linkages, which then guide a content analysis of those links; and (2) show how these links vary from those in the years before COVID-19 (Fig. 1). These distinct trajectories may well be able to bring continuous progress towards the greener society that is so sorely needed.

2 Materials and methods

The Web of Science (WoS) Core Collection contains a sufficiently comprehensive set of bibliographic records on the green economic recovery to perform the bibliometric analysis. To establish the basis for our discussion grounded on evidence-based practice, we analysed the co-occurrence of keywords in the scientific literature related to green recovery. A topic-based search using the search term ALL=(“green recovery” OR “green stimulus” OR “green fiscal stimulus” OR “green recovery packages” OR “green recovery program”) was conducted for the 10-year period between 2013 and February 2023. The period of analysis encompasses recovery efforts after the 2007–2009 financial crisis as well as the more recent health and economic crisis.

A total of 863 articles was identified after refining the search by applying specific filters that included: (i) a limitation on document-type articles, review articles, collections, and early access articles; (ii) a focus on relevant WoS categories: “Environmental Sciences”, “Green Sustainable Science Technology”, “Multidisciplinary Sciences”, “Environmental Studies”, “Ecology”, “Economics”, “Behavioral Sciences” and “Political Science”; and (iii) narrowing the search using citation topics on the meso-level, such as 6.115 Sustainability Science, 7.139 Energy & Fuels, 6.153 Climate Change, 8.124 Environmental Sciences, 6.10 Economics, 6.317 Risk Assessment, and 6.122 Economic Theory. After removing 35 articles with missing publication years and correcting certain cited references (including deletion of the phrase “no title”), we were left with a database containing 828 articles. The analysis was performed in the R package Bibliometrix (Aria & Cuccurullo, 2017), a well-suited tool for performing bibliometric analysis of large scientific databases.

To anticipate forthcoming trends in green economic recovery literature, we first performed a qualitative analysis of the database, whereas, in the second phase, the research articles exhibiting the highest usage count over the past 180 days were identified. The usage count, a metric gauging the level of interest in a research article logged by Web of Science, reflects the frequency of article accesses or saves during this 180-day period (from 14 to 2022 to 12 June 2023). This approach addresses the limitation of relying solely on citations to assess an article’s impact, given that citations take some time to accumulate and might not accurately reflect the current situation. Figure 1 depicts the research flowchart, outlining the step-by-step process, inputs and outputs.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Flowchart of the research process

3 Results and discussion

Results for the period between the last two global crises mentioned reveal a concentration of concepts in four broad groups: sustainable management of energy and resources (blue cluster), recovery with technological solutions for metals, waste and extraction (red cluster), energy sources including emerging technologies (purple cluster) and critical materials (green cluster). Yet, a detailed review of the field’s evolution since 2020 shows three distinct directions in which relevant topics have developed, characterised by connections that vary from those in the years before COVID-19 (Fig. 2). These distinct trajectories are discussed in Table 1.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Co-occurrence of keywords (2013–2019; 2020–Feb. 2023)

To supplement and reinforce our analysis, the articles recording the highest frequency of use over the past 180 days were separately collected. Table 1 presents a comprehensive list of articles ranked by their frequency of usage, accompanied by their respective citation counts. It is notable that the list reveals that the articles with the highest citation numbers do not necessarily suggest that they were recently used. Intriguingly, several articles on the list have garnered substantial attention from academia and real-world practice, despite having minimal or even no citations. As shown in Table 1, the current dynamics of the observed research field centre around relatively new articles published between 2021 and 2023. These articles delve into three prominent areas of interest: first, the area of efficient resource and recovery management, primarily investigated in Nanda and Berruti (2021) and Liu et al. (2022), and water management discussed in Li et al. (2022); second, the area of investigating electronic waste management and the scarcity of raw materials, namely the focal point in Chen et al. (2021), Dutta et al. (2023), Murthy and Ramakrishna (2022) and Qin et al. (2022); and, finally, the area of inspecting the effects of climate change (Shan et al., 2022; Ma et al., 2022) and possible ways of resolving them (Cao et al., 2021).

Table 1 Articles on the green economic recovery with the highest 180-day usage counts

First, the merger of the original red and dominantly blue clusters (i.e. before the onset of COVID-19) generated a significantly larger red cluster, indicating that successful recovery processes have depended on efficient (green) management practices (Abbasi & Erdebilli, 2023). The introduction of new management models into the energy sector is ever more prominent following the wider availability of renewable energy sources, technologies, and waste-to-energy processes (Nanda & Berruti, 2021). The greater involvement of individuals and communities (e.g. energy communities) in the energy system ensures the passage to a just transition. Further, developing and implementing accounting and accountability instruments, like those used to calculate and assess circularity performance, is needed to make informed decisions and implement continuous improvements in resource recovery and waste management (Di Vaio et al., 2023a). On the other hand, improved governance models must be established on the local level to adequately manage natural resources while ensuring the effective disposal of municipal solid waste and sewage sludge (Li et al., 2022; Nanda & Berruti, 2021; Liu et al., 2022; Xie et al., 2023).

Second, the development of fundamental science dealing with emerging technologies and aimed at resolving the scarcity of crucial raw materials (green cluster) shows the advancement of certain capabilities or competencies to be able to adjust to emerging needs, e.g. Qin et al. (2022) and Chen et al. (2021). The dearth of vital metals like rare earth elements and precious metals has become more pronounced as digitalisation spreads and the demand for electronic devices grows. The latter imposes global concerns regarding the significant rise in electronic waste, which adversely affects the environment and human health and hence is a burning issue that must be urgently confronted.Footnote 2 Still, we have yet to reach the point where we can turn basic science into broader practical applications. This makes it imperative to properly fund pilot projects on the circularity of critical metals and electronic waste management (Murthy & Ramakrishna, 2022) to be able to scale up implementation (represented by the red cluster) and to include them as a priority on the political agenda (blue cluster). Here, supporting efforts should be made to boost open science practices, such as open-access publishing, open data sharing and open-source software, while promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education can encourage more people to pursue careers in interdisciplinary studies.

Finally, the third stream of green recovery research focuses on the effects of technological progress on regional economies, especially the clean tech-innovation potential to add to economic growth while mitigating the impacts of climate change. Specifically, China’s consumption has increased rapidly over the past decades, particularly in terms of its use of fossil fuels, leading to considerably greater air pollution (Ma et al., 2022). This has caused distress to the global community that is looking for ways to reduce emissions and ease the effects of climate change. As China becomes more involved in the effort to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, city administrations require more detailed data about emissions levels and behaviours to make changes to low-carbon regulations (Shan et al., 2022). This datum is essential for governments to effectively create low-carbon policies, potentially based on the use of new types of financial models that are more efficient for financing green technology innovation than conventional finance (Cao et al., 2021).

Comprehension of the influential connections facilitates the formulation and introduction of integrated approaches for moving closer to a low-carbon circular future. Concurrent efforts should accordingly be pursued to formulate new stimulative regulations. For example, the EU has been at the forefront of environmental policy, adopting several directives to promote resource management and the circular economy and to prepare consumers for the green transition. These regulations have played a crucial role in translating scientific advancements into practical applications and integrating green technology solutions with the socio-economic sphere.

It is worthwhile highlighting the advancements in legislation concerning three pivotal aspects of the green transition. First, Directive (EU) 2018/849 focuses on proper electronic waste disposal and recycling, compelling businesses to adopt sustainable practices and invest in waste management technologies. It amends several directives related to end-of-life vehicle treatment, batteries, accumulators, and waste electrical and electronic equipment. These regulations have driven innovation in the recovery of critical metals from electronic waste, addressing concerns about raw material scarcity (OJEU, 2018). Moreover, the European Parliament’s, 2021 report on a European strategy for critical raw materials underscores the importance of these materials and the need to ensure their sustainable supply through recycling and circular economy principles. Second, on 3 May 2023 the European Council approved its position on the directive aimed at empowering consumers in the green transition (Council of the EU, 2023). This position strengthens consumer rights, prohibits vague environmental claims, and introduces a standardised graphic format to recognise commercial guarantees of durability. It forms part of a comprehensive package of four proposals, which includes the Ecodesign regulation and directive proposals on green claims and the right to repair. The Ecodesign and Energy Labelling Working Plan 2022–2024 seeks to enhance ecodesign and energy labelling standards for energy-related products (European Commission, 2022a). Third, launched in April 2022, the Energy Communities Repository provides support to local actors and citizens interested in establishing Citizens Energy Communities or Renewable Energy Communities in urban areas. The Repository offers technical and administrative guidance to facilitate their development and encourage growth (European Commission, 2022b).

Despite the clear need to bring about a sustainable transition so as to address the environmental issues, the transition could be accompanied by certain challenges. Specifically, early-stage technological limitations in areas like energy storage and grid infrastructure could prevent renewable energy sources from being practically deployed. Energy storage, for example, is required to capture the energy generated by renewable sources like solar and wind and store it for use when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing. Without this technology, renewable energy sources cannot be used reliably or even at all. Similarly, grid infrastructure also limits the ability to deploy renewable sources since the existing infrastructure may not be designed to accommodate them. To remediate this, we must invest in upgrading or adding new infrastructure and developing more efficient energy storage systems.

Moreover, implementing sustainable practices requires substantial investments in technology (i.e. artificial intelligence and digitalisation) (Di Vaio et al., 2023b), posing financial challenges for industries and low-income households. Disproportionate impacts on marginalised communities may arise due to the uneven distribution of costs and benefits. Finally, jobs are likely to be lost in industries reliant on fossil fuels, necessitating retraining. Therefore, the transition must prioritise social equity and gender equality (Di Vaio et al., 2023c). These challenges require careful planning and policies to mitigate the negative impacts of sustainability while recognising its urgency and long-term benefits.

4 Conclusion and limitations

This short communication contributes to the much-needed discussion surrounding the sustainable transitions by exploring bibliometric data related to the green recovery. In the process, an array of thematic linkages between scientific articles in this field was revealed that can be effectively used to inform and encourage green stimulus initiatives. With the combined use of objective bibliometric data and qualitative content analysis, this approach uniquely demonstrates the divergent and diverging trajectories of scientific literature concerned with green stimulus in the pre- and post-COVID-19 eras. The assessments of the thematic relationships in the green recovery literature have thereby opened up new avenues for innovation and exploration to push the limits of our knowledge and allow us to better understand the potential environmental, social and economic outcomes of such policies.

On a practical level, the study presents a well-structured evidence-based platform for policymakers as they construct green stimulus packages holding the greatest potential to successfully stimulate and sustain the green recovery. This includes insights into the policies and structures needed to support the transition in different sectors, enabling an understanding of both the need for systemic intervention and the possibilities for collaborative action. Further, the thematic linkages driving sustainable transitions shed light on the potential to create synergies across policies that would increase the success and speed of the green transformation. Ultimately, this study can be replicated in the future to discover fresh insights to establish a comprehensive picture of the field and to develop a timeline to map the latest developments.

In our short discussion, we identified important thematic linkages for strengthening the green transition, but not the existing gaps in the literature. As a result, the identified thematic linkages are limited to the main discussion topics and may not entail all of the options that could be used to consolidate the green transition. Gaps in the mentioned literature might include the political feasibility, financial viability and effectiveness of today’s green technology solutions, aspects that could impede a successful transition. In addition, so as to adequately explore the efficacy of the linkages identified, more research is called for to examine any causal connections that might exist.

While the bibliometric methodology ensures a certain degree of objectivity in evaluating the current trends in the observed research field, it may also involve a few drawbacks. First, the methodology largely draws from quantitative metrics, such as the citation and usage counts, in turn disregarding the quality or impact of individual publications. Groundbreaking or influential studies that have yet to gain recognition within the scientific community might thus be overlooked. Second, the lengthy publication process may hinder the timely capture of trends emerging in the research field. Finally, self-citation, self-usage, and manipulations like citation stacking may well distort the reliability of the results.