Some say the pandemic has become a permanent ally in the fight against climate catastrophe. It has jump-started a drop in the burning of fossil fuels, and that will continue. Others say this is short-term thinking: The public may abandon its concerns over global warming as it tries to climb out of the economic hole left by the COVID-19 lockdowns. Let’s accentuate the positive.
First off, the government-mandated social distancing and its freezing of much industrial activity has already cut greenhouse gas emissions, certainly for the time being. The International Energy Agency predicts that global carbon emissions will have fallen about 8% this year from 2019’s level. That would be the biggest annual decline ever.
One big reason has been people not driving and people not flying. We can’t know right now the extent to which a reopening will restore the old normal, but the ease of video conferencing and remote working – plus a continued need to socially distance – strongly suggest not quite. Many workers seem to like spending more time at home, while their employers can see advantages in spending less on office space.
Many governments are trying to revive their economies by investing in projects to “decarbonize” their economies. These are initiatives to slow the greenhouse gas emissions threatening life on the planet as we’ve known it. Helping the cause are very low interest rates, which make borrowing money for such projects a good deal easier.
There are now lots of jobs in green energy – 11 million globally. Meanwhile, collapsing demand has shredded employment in oil and gas. The only members of the fossil fuel industry doing really well these days are the bankruptcy lawyers.
That the virus may be fueling a lasting move away from carbon is not wishful thinking. The oil giant BP thinks the pandemic will cut long-term demand for fossil fuels. That’s why, looking past the glowing embers of economic recovery, BP has reduced the estimated value of its oil and gas assets by almost $18 billion. It expects some of them may never leave the ground.
BP’s reasoning goes beyond the coronavirus-caused recession. It points to the world’s ongoing retreat from carbon-based energy before the virus darkened the outlook even further. And it notes that several government stimulus packages are designed to speed the move away from fossil fuels.
France, for example, has threatened Air France with a loss of taxpayer subsidies if it doesn’t cut some domestic routes now served by high-speed train. [Airplanes emit huge amounts of greenhouse gases.] France’s $9 billion recovery plan for the auto industry includes lowering the prices of electric cars and making it easier to recharge them.
Canada now requires companies taking government bailout money to disclose the risk climate change poses to their bottom lines. If such reporting becomes mandatory, it could intensify the move of investment dollars toward greener enterprises.
The dramatic pre-COVID drops in the cost of solar and wind power had already made them a replacement for fossil fuel energy. Of course, prices for oil and natural gas have also fallen, making them more competitive with clean renewables. But wouldn’t the lower prices for oil and gas make this a good time to do away with their government subsidies?
The environmentally backward Trump administration would do no such thing. On the contrary, it’s been engineering various taxpayer bailouts for fossil fuel companies.
Thing is, President Donald Trump doesn’t matter so much anymore. In this country, states, cities and Wall Street know the future is green tech and putting their money there. The economic fallout from the pandemic has, if anything, lit the way.