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3 lessons COVID-19 is teaching us about emissions reductions


Greenhouse gas emissions are on track to plunge nearly 8 percent this year, the largest drop recorded. The decline in large part is due to the reduced fossil fuel demands as people across the globe lockdown and stay at home. 

But emission reductions won’t last. Why would it? We haven’t been designing for emission reductions; we’ve been quitting travel and to address a different problem. As every crash dieter knows, deprivation can get short-term gains but is a poor strategy for long-term health. 

To sustain — and deepen — emission reductions, we need a transformational shift in how we power the economy. 

The silver lining: COVID teaches us that we are collectively capable of more transformation than we thought. The only thing worse than a pandemic would be to not learn anything from a pandemic. 

Lesson 1: We’re capable of doing complex, coordinated things 

It turns out the global community is capable of great things. I am floored to see how we have come together in collective sacrifice to accomplish something for the greater good. 

That’s good news, because the COVID crisis is kind of like stretching before the climate crisis marathon. 

Scientists agree that to have a chance at a safe climate future, we have to see about an 8 percent decline in emissions every year.

Energy Innovation sees coordinated policy as key to changing our emissions trajectory, which it says is set to rebound to pre-COVID levels by 2025. The nonpartisan policy firm’s U.S. Energy Policy Simulator shows the long-term emissions benefits of U.S. energy policies and was just updated to capture the COVID recession in its modeling. 

Playing around with the tool is an interesting look at the real-world impacts of individual policies. It’s also sobering; it shows how much would need to be done to meet the Paris climate goals. 

"There’s no one silver bullet climate policy," said Megan Mahajan, a policy analyst at Energy Innovation, in a phone conversation. "It really takes a combination of policies to drive emissions down in every sector." 

As we figure out what we’re building post-COVID, it’s a good time to consider which policies would be most impactful. For example, research and development funding could pair nicely with standards to drive adoption. 

Energy Innovation's Energy Policy Simulator in action


"That’s what’s needed to get really large fundamental change," Mahajan said. 

LevelTen, a platform that tracks renewable energy projects, did the math to find out how much new wind and solar alone would be needed to see the emission reductions from COVID. Its answer: around 1100 gigawatts — about seven times the amount of renewable energy capacity added globally last year. 

Will Jolley, author of the analysis and manager of technical sales at LevelTen, finds the number encouraging. It outlines an action corporations and utilities can take to encourage economic development while working towards the goal of reduced emissions.

"We see a very large growth potential for global renewable energy development," said Jolley in a phone conversation, citing the European Union’s green deal and growing renewable demand in Asia. 

Lesson 2: We’re more adaptable than we knew 

While emissions will rebound as the economy reopens, companies may be transforming habits that have lasting impacts.

Elizabeth Thomas, assistant professor of geology at the University at Buffalo, deployed her students to look into and quantify how local companies could keep emissions low post-COVID.

According to Thomas, companies that were resistant to remote work now see it as possible. Same goes for travel policies.

"They were willing to adapt, but they had to be forced to try it at first," said Thomas in a phone conversation. "Once they tried it, they realized that employees could still be productive, they could still have meaningful meetings via online platforms, and now are willing to try to implement that long term."

Some tech companies already have committed to this switch. Both Twitter and Square announced this week that employees permanently will work from home. 

While remote work policies aren’t revolutionary, the agility of the private sector to respond to a crisis is heartening. Corporate leadership has been, and will continue to be, key and shifting mindsets and policies to further reduce emissions. 

Lesson 3: We need a resilient economy

Despite what incumbent energy producers say, it is possible to grow the economy and reduce emissions — indeed, the United States largely has decoupled emissions and economic growth, as have dozens of other developed nations. 

As we restart everything, we have an opportunity to shift away from the polluting, fragile, extractive system we’ve been using and build something for the future. 

The Rocky Mountain Institute has been giving some thought to this. It just released the first in a series of reports on the global principles of recovery, identifying four pillars of building a new-and-improved low-carbon economy:

  • Create jobs and grow the economy 
  • Reduce pollution and support public health 
  • Enhance economic, energy and climate resilience
  • Prioritize investments that will enable the world to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, job creation and economic growth, per the Paris Agreement

Many of these principles are connected and support one another. Clean energy is job-rich, gives back to the economy, reduces pollution and makes us more resilient. All we need to do is do it. 

Apparently, the kids today — aka tomorrow’s leaders — get this urgency and will fight for it. 

"There's a generation of students passionate about moving the needle on carbon emission education," Thomas said. "They see their lives are already impacted [by climate change] and will be even more in the future. So they're very passionate, very smart and incredibly motivated to make this happen."

This article is adapted from GreenBiz's newsletter Energy Weekly, running Thursdays. Subscribe here.

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