May 21st 2020 7-8 minutes
The pandemic shows how hard it will be to decarbonise—and creates an opportunity
FOLLOWING THE pandemic is like watching the climate crisis with your finger jammed on the fast-forward button. Neither the virus nor greenhouse gases care much for borders, making both scourges global. Both put the poor and vulnerable at greater risk than wealthy elites and demand government action on a scale hardly ever seen in peacetime. And with China’s leadership focused only on its own advantage and America’s as scornful of the World Health Organisation as it is of the Paris climate agreement, neither calamity is getting the co-ordinated international response it deserves.
The two crises do not just resemble each other. They interact. Shutting down swathes of the economy has led to huge cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions. In the first week of April, daily emissions worldwide were 17% below what they were last year. The International Energy Agency expects global industrial greenhouse-gas emissions to be about 8% lower in 2020 than they were in 2019, the largest annual drop since the second world war.
That drop reveals a crucial truth about the climate crisis. It is much too large to be solved by the abandonment of planes, trains and automobiles. Even if people endure huge changes in how they lead their lives, this sad experiment has shown, the world would still have more than 90% of the necessary decarbonisation left to do to get on track for the Paris agreement’s most ambitious goal, of a climate only 1.5°C warmer than it was before the Industrial Revolution.
But as we explain this week (see article) the pandemic both reveals the size of the challenge ahead and also creates a unique chance to enact government policies that steer the economy away from carbon at a lower financial, social and political cost than might otherwise have been the case. Rock-bottom energy prices make it easier to cut subsidies for fossil fuels and to introduce a tax on carbon. The revenues from that tax over the next decade can help repair battered government finances. The businesses at the heart of the fossil-fuel economy—oil and gas firms, steel producers, carmakers—are already going through the agony of shrinking their long-term capacity and employment. Getting economies in medically induced comas back on their feet is a circumstance tailor-made for investment in climate-friendly infrastructure that boosts growth and creates new jobs. Low interest rates make the bill smaller than ever.
Take carbon-pricing first. Long cherished by economists (and The Economist), such schemes use the power of the market to incentivise consumers and firms to cut their emissions, thus ensuring that the shift from carbon happens in the most efficient way possible. The timing is particularly propitious because such prices have the most immediate effects when they tip the balance between two already available technologies. In the past it was possible to argue that, although prices might entrench an advantage for cleaner gas over dirtier coal, renewable technologies were too immature to benefit. But over the past decade the costs of wind and solar power have tumbled. A relatively small push from a carbon price could give renewables a decisive advantage—one which would become permanent as wider deployment made them cheaper still. There may never have been a time when carbon prices could achieve so much so quickly.
Carbon prices are not as popular with politicians as they are with economists, which is why too few of them exist. But even before covid-19 there were hints their time was coming. Europe is planning an expansion of its carbon-pricing scheme, the largest in the world; China is instituting a brand new one. Joe Biden, who backed carbon prices when he was vice-president, will do so again in the coming election campaign—and at least some on the right will agree with that. The proceeds from a carbon tax could raise over 1% of GDP early on and would then taper away over several decades. This money could either be paid as a dividend to the public or, as is more likely now, help lower government debts, which are already forecast to reach an average of 122% of GDP in the rich world this year, and will rise further if green investments are debt-financed.
Carbon pricing is only part of the big-bang response now possible. By itself, it is unlikely to create a network of electric-vehicle charging-points, more nuclear power plants to underpin the cheap but intermittent electricity supplied by renewables, programmes to retrofit inefficient buildings and to develop technologies aimed at reducing emissions that cannot simply be electrified away, such as those from large aircraft and some farms. In these areas subsidies and direct government investment are needed to ensure that tomorrow’s consumers and firms have the technologies which carbon prices will encourage.
Some governments have put their efforts into greening their covid-19 bail-outs. Air France has been told either to scrap domestic routes that compete with high-speed trains, powered by nuclear electricity, or to forfeit taxpayer assistance. But dirigisme disguised as a helping hand could have dangerous consequences: better to focus on insisting that governments must not skew their bail-outs towards fossil fuels. In other countries the risk is of climate-damaging policies. America has been relaxing its environmental rules further during the pandemic. China—whose stimulus for heavy industry sent global emissions soaring after the global financial crisis—continues to build new coal plants (see article).
The covid-19 pause is not inherently climate-friendly. Countries must make it so. Their aim should be to show by 2021, when they gather to take stock of progress made since the Paris agreement and commit themselves to raising their game, that the pandemic has been a catalyst for a breakthrough on the environment.
Covid-19 has demonstrated that the foundations of prosperity are precarious. Disasters long talked about, and long ignored, can come upon you with no warning, turning life inside out and shaking all that seemed stable. The harm from climate change will be slower than the pandemic but more massive and longer-lasting. If there is a moment for leaders to show bravery in heading off that disaster, this is it. They will never have a more attentive audience. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Seize the moment”
Can covid help flatten the climate curve?
May 21st 2020 8-10 minutes
AMID COVID-19’s sweeping devastation, its effect on greenhouse gases has emerged as something of a bright spot. Between January and March demand for coal dropped by 8% and oil by 5%, compared with the same period in 2019. By the end of the year energy demand may be 6% down overall, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), an intergovernmental forecaster, amounting to the largest drop it has ever seen.
Because less energy use means less burning of fossil fuels, greenhouse-gas emissions are tumbling, too. According to an analysis by the Global Carbon Project, a consortium of scientists, 2020’s emissions will be 2-7% lower than 2019’s if the world gets back to prepandemic conditions by mid-June; if restrictions stay in place all year, the estimated drop is 3-13% depending on how strict they are. The IEA’s best guess for the drop is 8%.
That is not enough to make any difference to the total warming the world can expect. Warming depends on the cumulative emissions to date; a fraction of one year’s toll makes no appreciable difference. But returning the world to the emission levels of 2010—for a 7% drop—raises the tantalising prospect of crossing a psychologically significant boundary. The peak in carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil fuels may be a lot closer than many assume. It might, just possibly, turn out to lie in the past.
That emissions from fossil fuels have to peak, and soon, is a central tenet of climate policy. Precisely when they might do so, though, is so policy-dependent that many forecasters decline to give a straight answer. The IEA makes a range of projections depending on whether governments keep on with today’s policies or enact new ones. In the scenario which assumes that current policies stay in place, fossil-fuel demand rises by nearly 30% from 2018 to 2040, with no peak in sight.
The IEA, though, has persistently underestimated the renewable-energy sector. Others are more bullish. Carbon Tracker, a financial think-tank, predicted in 2018 that with impressive but plausible growth in renewable deployment and relatively slow growth in overall demand, even under current policy fossil-fuel emissions should peak in the 2020s—perhaps as early as 2023. Michael Liebreich, who founded BloombergNEF, an energy-data outfit, has also written about a possible peak in the mid 2020s. Depending on how the pandemic pans out he now thinks that it may be in 2023—or may have been in 2019.
Previously, drops in emissions caused by economic downturns have proved only temporary setbacks to the ongoing rise in fossil-fuel use. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Asian financial crash in 1997 and the financial crisis of 2007-09 all saw emissions stumble briefly before beginning to rise again (see chart). But if a peak really was a near-term prospect before the pandemic, almost a decade’s worth of setback could mean that, though emissions will rise over the next few years, they never again reach the level they stood at last year.
The alternative, more orthodox pre-covid view was that the peak was both further off and destined to be higher. On this view, emissions will regain their pre-pandemic level within a few years and will climb right on past it. Covid’s damage to the economy probably means that the peak, when it arrives, will be lower than it might have been, says Roman Kramarchuk of S&P Global Platts Analytics, a data and research firm. But an economic dip is unlikely to bring it on sooner.
What, though, if covid does not merely knock demand back, but reshapes it? This shock, unlike prior ones, comes upon an energy sector already in the throes of change. The cost of renewables is dipping below that of new fossil-fuel plants in much of the world. After years of development, electric vehicles are at last poised for the mass market. In such circumstances covid-19 may spur decisions—by individuals, firms, investors and governments—that hasten fossil fuels’ decline.
So far, renewables have had a pretty good pandemic, despite some disruptions to supply chains. With no fuel costs and the preferential access to electricity grids granted by some governments, renewables demand jumped 1.5% in the first quarter, even as demand for all other forms of energy sank. America’s Energy Information Administration expects renewables to surpass coal’s share of power generation in America for the first time this year.
Coal prices have fallen, given the low demand, which may position it well post-pandemic in some places. Even before covid, China was building new coal-fired plants (see article). But the cost of borrowing is also low, and likely to stay that way, which means installing renewables should stay cheap for longer. Renewable developers such as Iberdrola and Orsted, both of which have weathered covid-19 rather well so far, are keen to replace coal on an ever larger scale.
Those who see demand for fossil fuels continuing to climb as populations and economies grow have assumed demand for oil will be much more persistent than that for coal. Coal is almost entirely a source of electricity, which makes it ripe for replacement by renewables. Oil is harder to shift. Electric vehicles are sure to eat into some of its demand; but a rising appetite for petrochemicals and jet fuel, to which lithium-ion batteries offer no competition, was thought likely to offset the loss.
Now oil’s future looks much more murky, depending as it does on a gallimaufry of newly questionable assumptions about commuting, airline routes, government intervention, capital spending and price recovery. In the future more people may work from home, and commuting accounts for about 8% of oil demand. But those who do commute may prefer to do so alone in their cars, offsetting some of those gains. Chinese demand for oil has picked up again quickly in part because of reticence about buses and trains.
As to planes, Jeff Currie of Goldman Sachs estimates that demand for oil will recover to pre-crisis levels by the middle of 2022, but that demand for jet fuel may well stay 1.7m barrels a day below what it was as business travel declines. That is equivalent to nearly 2% of oil demand.
Such uncertainty means more trouble for the oil sector, whose poor returns and climate risks have been repelling investors for a while. Companies are slashing spending on new projects. By the mid-2020s today’s underinvestment in oil may boost crude prices—making demand for electric vehicles grow all the faster.
Natural gas, the fossil fuel for which analysts have long predicted continued growth, has weathered the pandemic better than its two older siblings. But it, too, faces accelerating competition. One of gas’s niches is powering the “peaker” plants which provide quick influxes of energy when demand outstrips a grid’s supply. It looks increasingly possible for batteries to take a good chunk of that business.
Those hoping for fossil fuels’ imminent demise should not be overconfident. As lockdowns around the world end, use of dirty fuels will tick back up, as they have in China. Energy emissions no longer rise in lockstep with economic growth, but demand for fossil fuels remains tied to it. Mr Currie of Goldman Sachs, for one, is wary of declaring a permanent decoupling: “I’m not willing to say there is a structural shift in oil demand to GDP.” Even so, a peak of fossil fuels in the 2020s looks less and less farfetched—depending on what governments do next in their struggle with the pandemic. Of all the uncertainties in energy markets, none currently looms larger than that. ■