Updated: Jun 1, 2020
COVID-19, other wise known as the novel coronavirus, has swept through the world, claiming 93,425 lives and infecting 1,536,979 people (as of April 9). But COVID-19 has also allowed us to see how it is possible to achieve the climate goals we have been striving for while also massively affecting the clean energy transition.
The Dhauladhar mountain range has been obscured for the past thirty years because of heavy pollution in the region. However, now it is visible because as stay-at-home measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 increase, the amount of pollution decreases.
“Never seen Dhauladar range from my home rooftop in Jalandhar. Never could imagine that’s possible. A clear indication of the impact the pollution has done by us to mother earth,"
wrote Indian cricket player Harbhajan Singh on Twitter. With COVID-19 regulations in place, there is not only no traffic on the roads, but many factories and industries are shut down, particularly in India, where a very strict lockdown was imposed starting March 22. In fact, government data reports that there has been a 71% plunge in the microscopic particle PM2.5 in New Dehli. PM2.5 causes serious health risks. Nitrogen dioxide from cars and power plants has also dropped 71%. Similar drops in air pollution are being seen all over the world, from China, to parts of Europe, and even to the United States.
Greenhouse Gas Drop
Carbon Brief published an analysis Thursday showing that the pandemic could cause a 1,600-megaton dip in carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to taking 345 million cars off the road, the single greatest drop in carbon emissions annually in recorded history. However, this is not cause for celebration, as previously noted, over 90,000 people have died and 1.5 million have been infected worldwide. In the US alone, the unemployment rate has spiked to 17%.
The reasons for this drop in emissions are simple. Since many people are working from home, electricity-intensive office buildings are using less to no energy. More cars are off the road and most flights are canceled, further reducing emissions. Furthermore, industrial activity has slowed, exemplified by a 16-year low in energy demand.
However, even this drop in emissions isn't enough. In order to curb warming at 1.5ºC, we need to cut back on global emissions by 2,200 megatons per year. Unfortunately, the only thing that has gotten us remotely close to this requirement is a global pandemic because our world leaders refuse to take the climate crisis seriously. A global pandemic is not a substitute for meaningful climate action.
Are There Direct Links?
Yes and no. Scientific American states that there is no scientific evidence to state that climate change caused COVID-19. There is also no evidence that climate change has exacerbated the transmission of COVID-19. There is evidence to suggest, however, that the virus is able to live longer outside of the human body.
Furthermore, climate change will most likely make the worldwide effects of COVID-19 worse because climate change "undermines the environmental conditions we need for good health" says the same Scientific American article. Climate change also places additional stresses on health systems, making them less able to cope in COVID-19.
As climate change causes more droughts and desertification, it makes water even more of a scarcity in some regions. Water is typically used in healthcare, including for infectious disease. Water shortages in medical facilities makes them ill-equipped to treat or even contain the outbreak. In Jordan, the world's fifth most water-stressed nation due to climate change and overuse, has reported a 58% increase in water shortages. This increase in water shortages is because everyone is at home, Reuters reported. People are drinking more water when they are at home, exacerbating the water crisis that will affect medical facilities.
Developmental Implications for Renewable Energy
COVID-19 poses some developmental implications for renewable energy as production around the world grinds to a halt. Projections for new energy storage have dropped 19% because of COVID-19. Buyers are running into problems getting the work done and getting permits. A similar problem is occurring with offshore wind. 2020 was supposed to be the year that offshore wind kicks off the clean energy transition, and a critical year in meeting offshore wind goals. However, many projects are being delayed, like Vineyard Wind 1, a massive 800-megawatt offshore wind farm, the largest offshore wind farm in North America. Global new wind energy projections have dropped 6.5%, down to 73 gigawatts from 77. But the forecast is most likely underestimating the drop because it doesn't take into account the rapidly changing situation. For instance, it was made before India instituted a nationwide lockdown, which will most certainly affect project there.
New forecasts also show that global demand for solar panels will go down for the first time since the 1980s. The BloombergNEF forecasts have gone down 8% for solar, with new solar capacity projected to be in the range of 108 to 143 gigawatts, down f 121 to 152 gigawatts. According to Jenny Chase, BloombergNEF's lead solar analyst, the pandemic will affect clean energy in 2020, have some reverberations in 2021, and then get back to normal.
On the legislative side, lawmakers and governors are switching into crisis-mode, meaning that they are not giving much attention to clean energy targets for 2020. Lawmakers are simply not finding the time to focus on a climate change agenda. Particularly in Minnesota, there are multiple versions of legislature that would make the state carbon-free by 2050. However, there is a May 18 deadline before the legislative body adjourns, and all the lawmakers are focused on COVID-19. However, regulatory commissions seem to be back on track after some lost time. David Littell, an energy and environmental attorney in Maine, said that state utility commission have already transitioned to virtual meetings, something that they had practice with in the past. He says, "I would say the (public utility commissions) and energy agencies and those of us who work with them are adapting to this new normal."
In short, it's a long time before we're returning to normal. While it may be hard to look at the economic side when we're all trying to stay safe right now, it's important to assess how the climate movement will be altered because of this pandemic. Soon there will be articles on virtual climate strikes and how the oil industry is changing because of COVID-19. Stay tuned!