Researcher Forecasts Energy and Environment After COVID-19
A professor of Earth system science in Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences is predicting that a greener economy and healthier society is likely to be one of the byproducts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Responding to a recent study by the Global Carbon Project, professor Rob Jackson (who led the study) cited dramatic positive changes in global emissions as a result of shelter-in-place rules that are being carried out across the globe.
“The drop in global emissions we estimate this year will surprise some people in being only 4 to 7 percent because shelter-in-place rules are temporary and staggered across different countries,” Jackson said. “But it will still be the biggest emissions drop since World War II, though for undesirable and unsustainable reasons. More surprisingly, U.S. emissions declined one third for part of April, a shocking drop driven by reduced mobility, manufacturing and electricity demand.”
A Crisis Like No Other… But in a Good Way
With so many people sheltering in place worldwide to stifle the spread of COVID-19, daily carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have dropped by as much as 17 percent globally, according to the study.
History tells us that past shocks have altered fossil fuel emissions, although none have had the lasting impact that Jackson is seeing vis-à-vis the coronavirus pandemic. Financial crises such as the 2008 financial implosion catalyzed by the subprime mortgage crisis, tend to be short-lived, according to Jackson. “The recession of 2008 reduced CO2 emissions a percent and a half globally for one year,” Jackson said. The emissions went right back to previous levels in 2009 and 2010 however, because nothing fundamental had changed in terms of the fossil fuel infrastructure. “By contrast, the oil shocks of the 1970s were specific to our fossil-fuel use and, therefore, more transformative. They led to everything from smaller cars to the birth of the solar and Alaskan oil industries.”
Comparisons such as these do tend to promote optimism in terms of reduced emissions and pollution in the future, given how hard fossil fuels have been hit in the market in recent years.
Timing is Everything for Green Energy
Timing has definitely had an effect on the dynamic between fossil fuels and greener energy during the pandemic. With fossil fuel prices (particularly oil) having plummeted in recent years, the financial problems this sector has suffered as a direct result of COVID-19 caused lenders in the energy arena to become somewhat skittish in lending to these interests. Factor in the economic strength that the renewable sector has enjoyed in recent years, and we’re seeing lenders who are pivoting toward renewables in a big way.
Additionally, government agencies and global organizations (like the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations) are looking for post-pandemic recovery programs that take climate change into account, as well as reinforcing the green energy infrastructure over fossil fuels.
“Almost $50 billion of stimulus funding after the 2008 recession helped transform wind and solar power and energy conservation,” Jackson said. “We’re still reaping the benefits today from green power, historically cheap wind and solar contracts and a clean-energy industry that employs three million Americans. We have the same chance to reshape transportation now. We could start by freeing up the $40 billion in low-interest loans currently idled in the Department of Energy’s clean energy and advanced vehicle loan programs.”
Seeing is Believing
The pandemic has changed people’s behaviors, and while some of the restrictions and inconveniences have been frustrating and bothersome, they have caused many to more closely examine their habits. Some may have seen their energy bills at home increase, but the increases often pale next to how much they’re saving in gasoline and dining out due to the fact that they’ve been working at home. Such dynamics tend to promote consideration of one’s behavior in general, as well as what other things they might do to save money and/or become more environmentally-responsible.
Jackson believes that COVID-19 may change aspects of transportation permanently. “Cities from Milan to Seattle are closing miles of streets to traffic permanently and opening them to pedestrians and bicyclists,” Jackson says. “Telecommuting, even part-time, might be the new normal. Traffic congestion has vaporized. Electric cars are fast and can be fossil-free, changing a sector of the economy that’s been hard to decarbonize.”