THE Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in the cancellation of COP26 – the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – scheduled to take place in Glasgow in November. It has also caused the cancellation of the Pre-COP26 ‘Youth for Climate’ event scheduled to take place in Milan in September. It has not, however, caused the cancellation of the climate emergency and its impacts.
The past five years have been the hottest on record and our planet registered its second-hottest year on record in 2019. Alarmingly, the trend is expected to continue. The impact of coronavirus on energy consumption has been huge. The International Energy Agency says that the world will use 6% less energy this year. That is equivalent to losing the entire energy demand of India.
Lockdowns have reduced global electricity demand by around 20% – much of which is still generated using fossil fuels. Over the year, the IEA forecasts a drop of 5% in electricity use and calculates that global road transport activity had halved from 2019 levels by the end of March. Air traffic, though only accounting for 3% of global carbon emissions, has seen its biggest ever reduction. The Covid-19 pandemic, therefore, has resulted in the most dramatic reduction in carbon emissions ever experienced, dwarfing anything seen in previous world crises.
Estimates vary but Carbon Brief calculates a fall of 5.5% in annual carbon emissions, while the IEA estimates a fall of 8% - two to three billion tonnes of carbon reductions. So now that we can all see the impacts change in human activity has on the planet and climate more starkly than ever, will we change our habits for good? Climate experts urge caution.
The Centre for International Climate Research’s says our response to the pandemic shows no signs of leading to permanent changes in future global emissions. Following previous crises, they returned to their pre-crisis trajectory. For example, the carbon emissions drop that followed the recession in 2009 was followed by a sharp rise of almost 6% in 2010.
The head of the IEA has also warned against viewing the current emissions decline as a climate triumph, saying: ‘This is because of the economic meltdown in which thousands are losing their livelihoods, not as a result of the right government decisions in terms of climate policies.’
Some predict we could end up in a worse position than before the pandemic as governments seeking to kickstart their economies lose sight of the bigger climate picture and plough public money into highly polluting sectors that increase our dependence of fossil fuels.
Those same governments put humanity before the economy when faced with the scale of the health emergency coronavirus has created. How many will do the same in the face of the climate emergency?
Even if we see a 5% drop in carbon emissions in 2020 that would not be enough. The UN Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap Report 2019 says global emissions now need to fall 7.6% per year every year this decade to have any chance of keeping us on course to limit global warming to less than 1.50C above pre-industrial levels. That will not happen by lockdowns and social distancing but by climate policies that encourage use of clean energy technologies and reduced demand for energy.
Here in Jersey, some government ministers have already indicated that support for environmental measures would form part of the Island’s post-pandemic recovery strategy. With an already clean, decarbonised and sustainable electricity supply, much can easily and cost-effectively be done to help the Island towards its ambition to be net zero carbon by 2030.
For example, moves to encourage electric transport, public and private, which accounts for over a third of Jersey’s current emissions, along with measures to encourage replacing fossil fuels with electricity for heating homes, businesses and public buildings. Investment could also be directed into energy efficiency and smarter, digital technology leading to higher comfort levels as well as lower costs. When combined with on-Island electrification of energy systems, this would be an effective way of keeping the cash within Jersey’s economy, hence comprising an efficient economic stimulus mechanism.
Post Covid-19, Jersey is better placed than most jurisdictions to embrace the ‘new normal’ and reap the long-term benefits of a cleaner, greener and healthier Island. It really does have the power – low carbon electric power.