CO2 emissions will drop by a record 2.6 billion tons this year, thanks to the coronavirus

By Adele Peters

As the coronavirus crisis has grounded planes, shut down factories, and taken cars off roads, global energy demand has plummeted—so much so that CO2 emissions will fall by nearly 2,600,000,000 metric tons this year. It’s the largest drop in energy-related emissions in recorded history, and the equivalent of losing the energy demand from the entire country of India.

It’s a huge number, but it still only represents an 8% drop in total emissions from energy compared to 2019, says a new report out April 3o by the International Energy Agency. Most emissions continue unabated. The lockdown measures taken to protect lives during the pandemic are also temporary changes and don’t reflect what actually has to happen to tackle climate change. What happens in the recovery after the current crisis will determine whether global warming can be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid the worst climate impacts.

Even during the current lockdowns, as millions of people have lost jobs and others are working from home, the underlying systems that contribute to climate change are still essentially in place. “There are a lot of parts of the economy that are actually still functioning, including things with a pretty low amount of labor for dollar output—you don’t need that many people to run a refinery or an oil rig,” says Robbie Orvis, director of energy policy design at the nonprofit Energy Innovation. Energy demand in other areas has shifted—commercial buildings are using less energy, but people are now using more energy at home.

“Because the perceived impact of what’s happening is so drastic, it masks what the underlying direction of the economy is doing in terms of the largest-emitting sources continuing to run,” Orvis says. Some people might look at the current situation and worry about the scale of the problem: If our lives have changed so dramatically and emissions from energy use have only fallen 8%, how can we possibly reach the goal of net-zero emissions across the entire economy? But that’s the wrong narrative, says Orvis. The economy doesn’t have to suffer to make the transformation. And in the recovery, building new green infrastructure could be a critical source of jobs.

“If you look at the types of jobs that are required for the clean energy transition and the types of benefits they deliver, you can decarbonize the economy and get economic growth—GDP growth and jobs growth,” he says. Those jobs include everything from installing wind turbines and solar panels to making batteries and electric cars. “It’s actually a great opportunity as we’re looking to reemploy millions of people, to bridge this moment and start building and installing all of the equipment we need to decarbonize the economy over the coming 30 years.”

If the world doesn’t rein in climate change, the economic cost will far outweigh what’s happening with COVID-19 now. One recent study estimated that if countries miss their goals under the Paris climate agreement, the global economy could lose $150 trillion to $792 trillion within one lifetime. Meeting the goals, on the other hand, would yield $127 trillion to $616 trillion in extra economic value by 2100.

The new International Energy Agency report highlights that the most polluting sources of energy are seeing the most impact in the current crisis. Coal demand is projected to drop 8% this year. Natural gas demand will likely drop 5%. Only renewable energy is expected to grow. As the economy improves, emissions are expected to ramp up again, the report says. But that doesn’t have to be the case. “[I]f the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis is anything to go by, we are likely to soon see a sharp rebound in emissions as economic conditions improve,” Faith Birol, the executive director of the IEA, said in a press release. “But governments can learn from that experience by putting clean energy technologiesrenewables, efficiency, batteries, hydrogen, and carbon capture—at the heart of their plans for economic recovery. Investing in those areas can create jobs, make economies more competitive, and steer the world toward a more resilient and cleaner energy future.”

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