The International Energy Agency (IEA) published its Global Energy Review 2020 focused on the impacts of the coronavirus crisis on global energy demand and CO2 emissions during the first quarter of 2020. The EIA also made projections for the rest of the year based on data from about two-thirds of global energy demand.

Global Energy Consumption in the First Trimester of 2020

Global energy demand declined by 3.8% in the first quarter of 2020, with the most significant impact coming from March, the month in which most confinement measures were enforced. As a result of this drop in energy use, energy-related carbon emissions are expected to fall by 8%, or 2.6gigatonnes in 2020 – the lowest level for a decade.

The IEA exposes countries in full lockdown experience an average 25% decline in energy demand every, compared to 18% in countries with a partial lockdown. The duration and stringency of lockdowns plays a great influence on the country’s energy demand.

In the first quarter of 2020, renewables were the only energy source whose demand grew (1.5%), largely driven by an increase in the installed capacity and priority dispatch. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), renewable generation capacity increased by 176 GW (+7.4%) in 2019, largely driven by the growth of solar and wind. This increase can help explain the positive results of renewables.

On the other hand, coal demand fell by nearly 8% (compared to the first quarter of 2019). To justify this decrease, the IEA points out the economic slow down in China (whose economy is coal-based), the growth and cheap price of gas, and the mild weather which reduced coal use. Just like with coal, the drastic reductions in mobility and aviation also let to a 5% decrease in oil demand during the same period. Gas demand also decreased by 2%.

Global Energy Predictions For 2020

The IEA explores a full year scenario considering “the energy impacts of a widespread global recession caused by months-long restrictions on mobility and social and economic activity”.

They estimate the economic recovery from the lockdown will be gradual and despite macroeconomics efforts, it will still be accompanied by a substantial permanent loss in economic activity,

Within the scenario described, the IEA estimates the impact of the new coronavirus on the global energy demand may lead to a 6% contraction. Put into perspective, it would be an impact 7 times greater – concerning the global energy demand – than the one caused by the financial crisis of 2008.

According to IEA’s forecasts, the global electricity demand will fall by 5%, with 10% reductions in some regions. Moreover, low-carbon sources would far outstrip coal-fired generation globally, by an even larger margin than in 2019.

Historical Carbon Emissions Decrease: And We Need It Every Year Until 2030

According to the scenario drafted by the IEA, global CO2 emissions are anticipated to decline by 8%, or almost 2.6 gigatonnes, to levels of 10 years ago. This year-on-year reduction would be the largest ever, 6 times larger than the previous record reduction of 0.4 Gt in 2009’s financial crisis.

Regrettably, it doesn’t look like Covid-19’s effect on emissions will stop global warming rises in the immediate term. This can be partially explained by the delay in air-temperature increase as the atmosphere catches up with all the heat that the Earth has accumulated.

In this way, according to a report from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published in March, there is a 74.67% chance 2020 will be the warmest year on record. The odds of 2020 being among the top 5 warmest years in history is higher: 99.94%.

If the forecasts from the IEA are close to being accurate and GHG emissions indeed decrease by 8%, it would be historical. But even more breathtaking can be the fact that this number is very close to the emissions reduction the UNEP concluded the planet needs, highlighted on its Emissions Gap Report.

To have a 66% chance of staying below a 1,5°C global mean warming above pre-industrial levels until the end of the century, emissions need to decrease 7,6% every year until 2030. Or 2.7 for the 2ºC target. Despite this year looking good – if we put economic and social consequences aside – GHG emissions have risen at a rate of 1.5 per cent per year in the last decade. It is crucial to repeat this year’s (expected) reduced emissions over the next years.

One in Ten: Reducing YoY Emissions Until 2030

Historically, crises come with a rebound in emissions that can be larger than the decline – it was the case in 2009 where polluting companies were bailed out and given subsidies. However, given the current scientific consensus on the need to reduce emissions for the long term survival of our species, where are reasons to believe polluting companies are helped transition to greener business models, with renewable strings attached, other than keep doing business as usual.

Apart from being cleaner and more resilient energy sources energy, solar and wind are increasingly appealing in the markets, which is good for investments. Governments can and should also play a major role in orienting this transition by subsidizing organizations with greener energy business models. They have a huge opportunity to get the respect and trust of public opinion (they have lost) by stepping away from lobbies and getting closer to the interests of the broader society and the planet.

The main contributor (25%) of carbon emissions is the burning of coal, natural gas, and oil for electricity and heat. Industry emissions, specifically the burning of fossil fuels on facilities for energy accounts for 21% of global emissions. While transportation holds a 14% burden. Energy and emissions and intrinsically linked and we can’t change one without changing the other.

This is why apart from cleaner energies, and also energy production that can be decentralized and integrated into the grid, being mindful about what we use all this energy for. If there is something the coronavirus has reminded us of is that we don’t need to consume so much or be always on the move to survive. And that not doing so reduces our emissions. We need to reduce emissions so survive in the long term – that we already knew. Is this the moment to ask harder, deeper questions so we can find more meaningful, equally-just answers with the potential to lead us to a redesign of how we live – considering normal is not the place we want to return to after the crisis? I’ll leave you with some questions.

Asking More Questions, Asking Better Questions and Living Up to the Precautionary Principle

  • Can we decouple energy consumption from GHG emissions and ecological harm?
  • What sources of energy are less polluting and how can they be quickly developed for all?
  • In which ways can these cleaner energy sources be a solution today but a problem in the future?
  • How can industries recycling rare Earth minerals do a better job and increase recycling rates considering every person in the world produces, on average, 6.1 kg of e-waste per year?
  • If we are exposed to fewer ads, will we consume less?
  • If the products we buy are more resistant and their repair more decentralized, will we consume less?
  • If we share items we don’t use every day more frequently among our communities, will we consume less?
  • If we are aware of the carbon footprints and ecological impact of the food and gadgets we buy, will we consume less and better?
  • Which strategies can be built to raise this awareness, considering the variety of subcultures and socioeconomic patterns there are?
  • If we consume “better”, how will this change production methods of producers and what positive ecological impact can happen?
  • If there is less consumption and, therefore, less production, won’t there be fewer jobs available?
  • If there all fewer jobs, how will people survive if they are unemployed and don’t get an income to pay for food and shelter?
  • Is a society where people need to work to survive, which may not happen because there are not enough jobs or they need a degree of specialization people do not have, the one we want to live in?
  • What if people shared their jobs and worked part-time, having more time to expand their artistic or entrepreneurial skills?
  • What if everyone had a universal basic income to cover survival expenses, will those working harder could, besides surviving, working more a better life?
  • And it goes on…

[Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash]