The COVID-19 pandemic shut economies, disrupted established global production chains and pressed an indefinite pause on the ‘old’ normal.
As we emerge from the depths of lockdown and re-assess our individual and collective views of the world around us, an old shadow looms behind us: climate change.
The COVID-19 crisis continues to dominate global headlines and have significant impacts on politics and people lives. But as we surface from our relative isolation, important decisions have to made at every level of society to determine the new world we want to usher in when we are back.
We’ve seen images of cities usually choked by fog, traffic and tourists, clear and empty for locals to reclaim. Delhi, London, Paris, New York, Venice – all now liberated from the fossil fuel motorcar and industrial pollution for their inhabitants.
But when the tourists, and the traffic, and the smog return, when industry and international travel (inevitably) resumes, will people remember these cities as they have been during this time and demand that we build back better?
And will they stop and think about the links between our fossil fuelled economic system, air pollution and climate change?
The dominant climate-related story during the crisis has centred around an expected, and in some cases observed, drop in emissions as a result of reduced fossil fuel consumption and the temporary closure of industry, as restrictions have been imposed, consumption has fallen and aviation and transportation has collapsed.
Analysis from Carbon Brief, a UK based climate and energy news website, estimates that there will be around a 5.5% drop in emissions compared to global total of 2019, which would amount to the greatest annual fall in CO2 emissions in 2020, larger than the 2008 economic crash and the world wars.
— Carbon Brief (@CarbonBrief) May 12, 2020
However, we should not misinterpret this short-term reduction in emissions as significant progress towards Paris. Emissions must fall for many more years to come to meet climate targets and fluctuations in levels have been observed yearly due to inertia in the climate system, according to Carlo Buontempo, director of Europe’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. “In reality it is very likely that the total concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere will continue going up in the future.”
This is almost certainly true. When economies begin to re-open, and people return to work we will see an uptick in energy use across all areas of society.
An example is transport. Public mass transport is likely to fall out-of-favour as walking/cycling is encouraged by the UK Government and images appear of Londoners impossibly attempting to maintain social distancing guidance on their peak hour commutes. As a result, the use of private cars could increase as the best option for socially distancing, but with catastrophic effects on pollution and emission levels, especially when you consider a quarter of all UK car journeys are for distances of under one mile – easily replaceable by cycling or walking.
Even as we see sales of electric vehicles sales rising each year, most vehicles on the roads at the moment will still be running on fossil fuels. So, with people back in cars and businesses re-opening, fossil fuel demand is slowly rebounding, however the question remains: will fossil demand ever fully recover?
Energy Markets and post-COVID economic stimulus
The International Energy Agency recently released their latest projections, and at the same time expanded their coverage to include real-time analysis of the developments in response the COVID pandemic. The scenarios estimate that fossil fuels will decline (Oil 9%, coal 8% and gas 5%) whilst solar and wind will grow by 16% and 12% respectively.
Carbon Tracker’s Kingsmill Bond believes “If these decline rates are right, this means that peak fossil fuel demand was almost certainly in 2019.”
All eyes are now turned to governments, financial institutions and investors to direct us out of this crisis. The collaborative actions of these institutions now will define the path humanity takes, and on which the fate of the climate now rests.
With more than $7 trillion being committed in the last three months, and more on the horizon to help the global economy recover, financial recovery packages will either help or hinder the current fossil-fuel-intensive economic system. The recent report from the Oxford Smith School gives an excellent overview and indicates that progress in combatting climate change will depend on the policy choice made in the coming 6 months.
We’ve already seen strong calls from EU countries for a green recovery, however, for a group of nations committed to Net-Zero 2050 this is not unexpected. Investing in Green New Deals and socially responsible economic stimulus to aid economies’ transitions to low and zero-carbon will be highly effective ways to counter economic downturn.
Relatively speaking, our focus should be on stimulus policies of the biggest polluters China, US, India, Russia and Japan, with pressure on their COVID recovery plans to be green.
China in particular has already seen a bounce back in emissions and an economic stimulus package which includes coal projects, despite the fact that it is already said to have built more coal plants than it needs. According to Carbon Tracker’s Power & Utilities team, 70% of China’s operating coal power stations cost more to run than building new onshore wind or utility-scale solar PV. Surely, an incentive to go green?
The solutions to the economic crisis are the solutions to climate crisis
It’s all good talking about green stimulus but turning ideas in meaningful actions and solutions is going to be next big challenge. It’s going to complex, slow and sometimes controversial, but we can no longer accept the status quo of the polluting fossil fuel industry being propped up with taxpayer money.
Whilst many companies have stated their climate ambitions, and even net-zero targets (see Carbon Tracker blogs on this), they will no doubt have to shrink and significantly review their activities.
However, transformative projects are being designed and implemented across the globe that serve as model solutions to both the economic and the climate crisis.
One example is the US Gemini Solar Project recently approved in Nevada, a state which recently joined a cross-state coalition committing to emissions-free power and 50% electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
The $1 billion installation backed by NV Energy Inc. and Quinbrook, will be able to generate 690 megawatts and power over a quarter of a million households – enough to cover the population of Las Vegas. The project not only helps slow climate change but lowers bills for consumers and creates 900 jobs.
With projects like this popping up around the world, and more decisive government actions for climate, we could be on verge of a more economically and environmentally responsible future.
The road ahead
Without climate playing a central role in global economic stimulus packages post-COVID, it’s hard to imagine a world which can meet the ‘well below 2˚C’ Paris Agreement target.
Unflattening the Carbon Emissions Curve: If we’d acted two decades ago, we’d have an easy (blue) bunny slope on our hands. Instead we now face a dangerous (yellow) double diamond run.
Via @Grist: https://t.co/93udwEAqG6 pic.twitter.com/D8gFgivBR3
— Michael E. Mann (@MichaelEMann) May 14, 2020
Under a business as usual scenario global average temperatures will likely be 4˚C by 2100, this will now be altered, and perhaps expedited, if countries react to COVID in isolation of each other.
Globally we have been given an opportunity to change the course that we are on. We’ve seen that governments, organisations and communities can adapt and react quicker to crises than we ever thought possible, despite enormous disruption to the global economy.
The next decisions taken now by governments and institutions to recover from COVID-19 will shape the world to come. Let’s learn and take stock from this crisis to build a policy framework for the climate that promotes economic recovery while accelerating the energy transition.
 Carbon Tracker, 2020 https://carbontracker.org/was-2019-the-peak-of-the-fossil-fuel-era/
 Smith School, 2020 https://www.smithschool.ox.ac.uk/publications/wpapers/workingpaper20-02.pdf
 Wall Street Journal, 2020 https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-approves-giant-solar-project-in-nevada-11589216400