Impact of COVID-19 on the Planet & the Global Shift to Renewable Energy
The terrible global crisis of COVID-19 has sent much of the world as we know it into lockdown and social distancing have become a well-known crisis term. The global population is finding itself in a state of anxiety and fear. Despite the negative global situation, some incredible and seemingly breath-taking moments have started manifesting worldwide. It is as though the earth has been able to take a breath and start to heal in small ways – this, largely due the drop in human activity and the reduced use of carbon emissions, giving us a glimpse of what the earth would be like if we relied more heavily on renewable energy.
Impact of COVID-19 on the Environment
The fight against the coronavirus is like a war. To address climate change, however, “we need to win the peace,” says Mark Carney, UN special envoy on climate action and climate finance. As societies and economies face this coronavirus crisis, the question will be where this war leaves the even bigger challenge the world was facing prior to the pandemic – and which it will face again after climate change.
Due to the restriction on movement imposed by governments worldwide, many societies have been forced to a standstill, and with that, the economy has come to an almost complete halt. Big factories, being one of the largest contributors of CO2 and NO2 worldwide have been forced to stop production. The second biggest emissions producing sector, travel, has also been minimised greatly, leading to an even bigger reduction of poisonous gasses.
Numerous images have been shared on social media of brighter cleaner cities, clearer unpolluted canals in Italy, and wild animals roaming the streets in India and the United States – however hopeful these images might be it has also contributed to a false narrative of how the environment has been “saved” by a couple of weeks of lockdown. Without negating the impact of a collective response to the reduction in emissions the other negative environmental impacts as a result of this pandemic seems to fall by the wayside.
Here are some of the most prominent ways in which the coronavirus pandemic has, or most likely will affect the environment.
1. Reduction in Air Pollution
The biggest impact to date has been seen in China, where the outbreak originated. China is one of the biggest producers of emissions in the world and the impact of the shutdown has highlighted the reduction of air pollution on a large scale. An estimate based on government data shows that the reduction in emissions that has so far occurred during the COVID-19 crisis, could in all likelihood save the lives of thousands of children and adults over the age of 70 (source: http://www.g-feed.com/2020/03/covid-19-reduces-economic-activity.html). Nitrogen dioxide is mainly produced by car engines, power plants and multiple other industrial processes and it is believed to be the cause for a plethora of health problems, especially respiratory diseases such as asthma. It may well be that the number of people saved by this reduction in emissions outweighs the number of people who have succumbed to the COVID-19 disease.
(https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/21/air-pollution-falls-as-coronavirus-slows-travel-but-it-forms-a-new-threat.htmlNASA’s Earth Observatory pollution satellites show “significant decreases” in air pollution over China since the coronavirus outbreak began.)
Randolph Bell, director of the Global Energy Centre for the Atlantic Council responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and the implications for the energy sector and the environment by stating the following: “It seems likely that the coronavirus-induced global economic downturn will cause carbon dioxide emissions to drop this year, the first time since the financial crisis of 2009, with one projection predicting an overall annual decline ranging from 0.3% to 1.2%. Some see this as a silver lining of the crisis—and the NASA satellite images of pollution reduction in China are truly remarkable, following an emissions drop of 25 percent over four weeks of lockdown—suggesting what a future powered by clean energy could look like.
He further goes on to say that “…this is the wrong lesson to take from this drop in emissions. That it requires a global pandemic with thousands of deaths, rapidly increasing unemployment, and huge amounts of economic dislocation to reduce emissions by a relatively small amount, should instead be one more wake-up call to the scale of the climate challenge and the complexity of solving it.”
According to scientific analysis air pollution is linked to a much higher death rate in people with Covid-19. Due to the large differences in toxic air levels across countries around the world, the research suggests that people in polluted areas are more likely to succumb to the coronavirus than those who find themselves in cleaner areas. Scientists from Italy have similarly suggested that the high death rates in the north of the country correlate with the highest levels of air pollution. Although air pollution has fallen since widespread lockdowns have been implemented, scientists have warned that cleaner air is paramount for future survival and would dramatically reduce the Covid-19 deaths. (Source: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/07/air-pollution-linked-to-far-higher-covid-19-death-rates-study-finds)
Nature is speaking. Why aren’t we listening?
2. Increase in Medical Waste
Climate change is a growing health concern around the world, contributing to heatstroke, food insecurity and other respiratory diseases – and the health care industry is part of the problem. Kent Waddington, co-founder of the Canadian Coalition for Green Health Care described the situation as “It’s almost like the process of healing causes harm”. Since the coronavirus outbreak, there has been an increase in medical waste – most of the personal protective equipment cannot be worn more than once before being disposed of. Wuhan is reported to have produced over 200 tons of waste per day during the peak of the virus, compared to an average of fewer than 50 tons of medical waste prior to the outbreak. To put this into perspective: Hospitals generate millions of tons of waste in an average pandemic-free year – the disposal of solid waste produces greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, a greenhouse gas twenty one times more potent than carbon dioxide.
The health sector has an enormous opportunity to stop contributing to the climate crisis and become a much bigger player in the clean energy transition.
There is no doubt that there have been some environmental benefits as a result of this pandemic, however, it should be pointed out that it has by no means made even so much as a dent in our fight against climate change. Everyone will have an important role to play in this fight whether it be individuals, companies, governments and civil society. Governments will however play the most important role as leaders of their nations - they will have to build the capability to model climate risk and to assess the economics of climate change. A part of the vast majority of the resources deployed for economic recovery should be allocated to climate-change resiliency and mitigation, which includes investing in renewable energy infrastructure, expanding the capacity of the utility grid with a view to support increased electricity supply. Technologies aimed and decarbonizing heavy industries should be considered as well as the reconsidering of subsidy regimes that accelerate climate change. Once the government is totally committed to the fight against climate change, the filtering down of such action into local levels will be much easier to achieve.
As Dickon Pinner and Matt Rogers, senior partners at McKinsey’s San Francisco office summed it up: “By all accounts, the steps we take in the decade ahead will be crucial in determining whether we avoid runaway climate change. An average global temperature rise above 1.5 or 2°C would create risks that the global economy is not prepared to weather. At an emission rate of 40 to 50 gigatons of CO2 per year, the global economy has ten to 25 years of carbon capacity left. Moving toward a lower-carbon economy presents a daunting challenge, and, if we choose to ignore the issue for a year or two, the math becomes even more daunting. In short, while all hands must be on deck to defeat the coronavirus and to restart the economy, to save lives and livelihoods, it is also critical that we begin now to integrate the thinking and planning required to build a much greater economic and environmental resiliency as part of the recovery ahead.”
Impact of COVID-19 on the Renewable Energy Industry
As much of the global economy is on some sort of lock-down and no one knows for how long these measures will be in place. This has resulted in a sudden downturn in economic activity with potentially significant implications for the wider green economy and the renewable energy sector in particular.
1. Supply Shortages and Delay in Construction
The most significant impact on renewable projects that are already contracted and under construction will most likely be felt through supply chains. Renewable industry executives are expecting delays in delivery and construction as a result of worldwide shutdowns in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Many parts for renewable projects come from China and the virus has slowed down Chinese production of solar panels and materials, delaying projects in South Africa, India and Australia. These disruptions could add to a significant dip in renewable additions.
The solar industry has largely acknowledged that the Coronavirus Pandemic will result in decreased demand, delayed projects, supply shortages, lost jobs, and the alteration of financing. There are however numerous examples of how industry players are adapting and changing to minimise the damage caused by this crisis. The shift to online technology has started in an effort to curtail the challenges relating to sales and project design that arise when government lockdown orders prevent face-to-face meetings.
2. Procurement Phase Risks
Renewable projects in the procurement phase are particularly vulnerable to the impact of the pandemic. This vulnerability is in large part due to increased prices, supply shortages and the lack of participation in a tender process, particularly if contractors are unable to do site assessments and bid according to competitively based on the risk.
Norwegian Analyst Group, Rystad Energy stated that ““Movements in the foreign exchange market [could] cause companies to pause contracting key components, which are typically procured in US dollars, [with] renewable projects in Australia, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa especially impacted, as projects in the procurement phase face capital cost increases of up to 36% due to the rapid depreciation of local currencies in these countries.”
IEA executive Faith Birol has emphasized that wind and solar is vital, in the aftermath of this COVID-10 crisis, to ensure economic sustainability whilst we ramp up our fight against the climate crisis:“Governments have to address [the financial impact of Covid-19] and build firewalls for the economies of their countries as millions of people are losing their jobs. Many of these governments are in the process of preparing huge stimulus in order to provide for economic recovery – in Europe, the US, Japan, it is everywhere,” said Birol. “How these packages are going to be designed is going to be extremely important,” he said. “We should make sure that [after the coronavirus crisis] the global economy goes up but emissions go down. We can do that by providing the elements of clean-energy transitions in these stimulus packages.”
It has become quite evident that mass isolation is no sustainable way of cleaning up the environment. Unemployment is reaching an all-time high in almost every country across the globe and trillions have been pledged by governments in an effort to restore their economies. Accepting the deaths of the vulnerable due to the economic shutdown together with the draconian restrictions on everyday life is not a realistic or reliable way to fight the climate crisis. Only long-term systemic shifts will alter the trajectory of CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Hopefully, in the aftermath of this terrible coronavirus pandemic, when leaders around the world consider and design stimulus packages composed of infrastructure, they realize the opportunity to meet the demand with renewable energy investment, cleaner and greener packages in all possible sectors. There is already a glimpse of how the coronavirus pandemic may influence the speed and nature of climate action, and how such action could accelerate the recovery of the impact of the pandemic by creating jobs, driving capital formation, and increasing economic resiliency.
It shouldn’t take a pandemic for the global population to reconsider their impact on the environment, but it has. You could make a change right now. How we return to life post-pandemic could lay the foundation for a greener, cleaner, and more resilient future.