Unforeseen side effects of lockdowns and social distancing methods to combat the spread of the coronavirus include decreased energy demand and drops in pollution levels around the world. This year, the world may experience a record-breaking annual decline in energy-related carbon emissions of nearly 8%, according to a report from the International Energy Agency (IEA).
This is the lowest CO2 emission level seen in a decade. However, experts warn that the world may experience a rebound in emissions post-pandemic.
“Governments can learn from [the 2008 financial crisis] by putting clean energy technologies— renewables, efficiency, batteries, hydrogen and carbon capture—at the heart of their plans for economic recovery,” said Dr. Fatih Birol, executive director at IEA in a press release. “Investing in those areas can create jobs, make economies more competitive and steer the world towards a more resilient and cleaner energy future.”
Renewable energy may be the only energy sector that experiences growth in demand in 2020, according to the IEA report. In 2019, low-carbon technologies were the leading source of electricity for the first time in 50 years—overtaking coal. This trend is on track for 2020 as well, with lockdown measures driving a major shift toward low-carbon sources of electricity.
Low-carbon energy sources are projected to reach 40% of global electricity generation in 2020. The United States, for instance, is expected to generate more electricity from renewable energy than from coal for the first time ever, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Global energy demand is projected to fall by 6% this year, which can be equated to the entire energy demand of India, according to the report. This is the largest decline since the Great Depression and seven times what the world experienced after the 2008 financial crisis, according to The Guardian. Coal, gas and oil are experiencing sharp reductions, with coal facing its largest decline since World War II.
There is a sharp decline in electricity usage for countries in lockdown. Full lockdowns have lowered electricity demand by 25%, while partial lockdowns have lowered demand by 17% on average, according to the report.
“This is a historic shock to the entire energy world,” Birol said. “Amid today’s unparalleled health and economic crises, the plunge in demand for nearly all major fuels is staggering, especially for coal, oil and gas. Only renewables are holding up during the previously unheard-of slump in electricity use.”
Less pollution has in turn increased renewable energy production. Since pollution blocks solar radiation and reduces solar panel efficiency, clearer skies can improve the production of renewable energy. Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom experienced record solar energy production this spring. In March and April, solar power set and broke records in Germany, according to Grist. Last month, solar power generated 40% of the country’s electricity, while 22% is generated by coal and nuclear power.
In the U.K., coal-fired power plants did not supply electricity to the country’s energy system for 18 consecutive days, according to The Guardian. This is the longest streak of energy production without coal-fired power in over a century. The U.K. plans to close its four remaining coal plants by 2025.
While renewable energy production has increased during the pandemic, disruptions in supply chains and financing may delay new solar and wind projects in the United States, according to Grist. Due to the coronavirus, over half of American solar workers were laid off or face cutbacks, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The pandemic also threatens 35,000 jobs and $35 billion in wind energy investments, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
But the industry’s resilience could prove promising for getting Americans working post-pandemic, according to The Verge. Solar and wind creates more jobs per unit of energy delivered than coal or natural gas, according to a 2010 study in Energy Policy. Federal spending on renewable energy can create jobs, projects can be built quickly when they’re localized and clean energy production can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“It is still too early to determine the longer-term impacts, but the energy industry that emerges from this crisis will be significantly different from the one that came before,” Birol said.