Experts Assess

By on Jul 15, 2020 in Energy, News

Along with tracking the momentous public health and economic implications of COVID-19, renewable energy advocates are keeping a close eye on how the pandemic is affecting the Earth’s environmental well-being.

The International Energy Agency, which advocates for sustainable energy policies, reported that average global road transport activity fell by 50% of the 2019 level in the first quarter of 2020, while aviation activity declined 60%, spurring an unprecedented decline in world oil demand. The U.S. saw a 50% reduction in the use of jet fuel and 30% less gasoline consumed; meanwhile, natural gas use in commercial and residential buildings dropped by almost 20% from late March to early June of this year, according to a study of COVID-19’s effects on energy and the environment by researchers from the MIT Sloan School of Management, Yale University and Northwestern University.

Reductions spark optimism

“Overall, these reductions reflect a 15% total reduction in daily CO2 emissions, which is the largest annual percentage decline for the U.S. in recorded history,” says MIT Sloan professor Christopher Knittel, one of the researchers.

The recent drop in consumption and emissions offers a glimpse of a cleaner future – if the effort is sustained after the crisis abates. In the wake of COVID-19, “it is essential that we build back better. We need to create a more resilient and sustainable clean energy system in order to reduce the risk of facing the catastrophic crises that climate change could bring,” says Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, writing for the World Economic Forum.

That means prioritizing structural changes that “make a real difference for the energy transition in the longer term” rather than jumping on “the bandwagon to push the green agenda in short-term relief packages,” say researchers from ETH Zurich’s Energy Policy Group and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in an article published in Joule.

Pressures could imperil progress

Officials in several U.S. states, for example, have issued policy directives encouraging accelerated clean energy technology adoption and extended renewable energy tax credits. These and other measures “suggest that clean energy policies provide much-needed stability in a time of tremendous uncertainty as well as an opportunity for future recovery efforts,” according to Sam Kozel, director of research for regulatory research and policy advisory firm E9 Insight.

“What I see clearly is momentum … behind sustainable recovery and momentum behind clean energy transitions,” adds Dr. Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director, who hosted a July virtual summit attended by government authorities representing more than 80% of the global economy.

But that momentum doesn’t guarantee an unimpeded path to successful clean energy transitions. Clean energy research and investment budgets could come under threat as COVID-19 forces authorities to divert funds to other needs. A lingering recession could pressure officials to weaken climate change mitigation goals. Such measures could imperil the fragile progress made so far because “even just pushing back all renewable electricity generation investments by one year would outweigh the emissions reductions and avoided deaths from March to June,” according to the Sloan/Yale/Northwestern team, which also predicts a 43% decline in global electric vehicle sales in 2020 along with reductions in residential solar collection and storage installations, energy efficiency audits and clean energy employment. As an added hindrance, data sharing crucial to environmental progress is threatened by an overall increase in cyberattacks, phishing schemes and other nefarious acts.

Nevertheless, there is reason to hope that the response to the current crisis can produce resilient and sustainable energy systems. “Above all, COVID-19 underscores the importance of high-quality baseline policies and institutions, from facilitating healthy energy commodity markets to sound energy infrastructure cybersecurity practices” that will “leave us better prepared for future pandemics,” says Devin Hartman, energy and environment director at public policy research organization R Street Institute, quoted in utility news and analysis site Utility Dive.

Learn about Yardi solutions that support sustainability initiatives and the resources the company is devoting to its clients, employees and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.