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OPINION | Think the COVID-19 lockdown is tough? Meeting our climate targets will be tougher

The lockdown has shown us many things. How we apply these lessons to our energy future will determine our success in the fight against both COVID-19 and climate change.

COVID-19 reveals how difficult the Paris targets will be to reach

During the COVID-19 pandemic, despite much of the world staying at home, the decline in emissions was still not enough to reach the targets under the Paris Climate Accord. (Jim Brown/CBC)

This column is an opinion from Marla Orenstein and Patrick Smith of the Canada West Foundation.

(CBC)

By the end of April, an estimated 4.2 billion people, representing over 50 per cent of the world's population and 60 per cent of global GDP, were under either partial or complete lockdowns and coping with severe restrictions on travel and commercial activity.

These restrictions pressed the snooze button on much of the global energy system. Now, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has published data showing the magnitude of the decreases in both energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

While the findings are interesting, they come with stark implications for what it will take for Canada and other countries to meet their targets under the Paris agreement. 

Without far more drastic measures, those climate targets may well be out of reach.

The IEA found that global energy demand experienced its single largest decline since the Second World War.

At the height of the lockdowns, road travel was down over 50 per cent, air travel was down over 60 per cent and electricity demand was down by close to 20 per cent. For countries in full lockdown, total energy use dropped by 25 per cent, and for those in partial lockdown, by 18 per cent.

Despite huge drop in energy use, it's still not enough

The largest declines came from fossil fuel sources: coal, oil and natural gas. Renewables were relatively unaffected by the COVID-19 lockdown measures, both because they are given priority in electricity grids and because there is little enough renewable supply that the full complement was still needed.

When averaged over the first quarter of 2020 (January through March, preceding the height of the lockdowns), there was an overall decrease in global energy use of nearly four per cent. And with that came a drop in global CO2 emissions of over five per cent. Major emitting regions that experienced the earliest and largest COVID-19 outbreaks — China, the European Union and the United States — accounted for the greatest decreases. 

However, despite much of the world staying at home, an economic downturn rivalling the Great Depression and the near complete shutdown of international travel, the decline in emissions is still not enough to reach our targets under the Paris Climate Accord.  

According to the UN Emissions Gap Report 2019, economy-wide GHG emissions must be reduced by roughly 25 per cent relative to 2018 levels by 2030 if we are to keep global warming to two degrees by the end of the century.

If we want to keep warming to only 1.5 degrees, we will need a 55 per cent decrease in emissions. And we need to do this while world energy use is expected to rise 50 per cent by 2050.

One of the lessons learned from the pandemic is that behavioural changes in energy consumption are not enough. (Jim Brown/CBC)

What does this mean for our GHG emission targets? The first implication is that there is a real chance that the Paris target will not be achieved.

The second implication is that behavioural changes in energy consumption are not enough.

Alternatives needed

Although many people were willing to make extreme sacrifices to prevent an even worse pandemic, the severe personal and economic strain is not sustainable over an extended period. We need viable alternatives to the current global energy system that have at least as great an effect on emissions as the lockdowns, but without the pain. 

Natural gas as a transition fuel will be essential; it was responsible for a three per cent decrease in emissions in the United States in 2019 alone, as power plants shifted from coal to natural gas.

Nuclear power has to be considered as a serious option. While nuclear power raises other problems, it is essentially GHG-free and avoids some of the problems associated with wind, solar and hydro, including intermittency and the need for a large land footprint.  

Renewables have many benefits, but they are not a magic bullet. Their advantages need to be weighed with sufficient attention to the new problems that their uptake creates.

"Clean" hydro, for example, is the result of damming rivers, which substantially degrades upstream ecosystems and is often strongly opposed by communities. Solar, wind and batteries all require materials that are mined in conditions that cause substantial environmental and social damage. Establishing large solar or wind "farms" on greenfield land can irretrievably damage biodiversity — another global crisis that is coming down the line. 

The lockdown has shown us many things: that governments can act rapidly if they feel a threat is imminent; that resilience in the supply of energy, food and other necessities is both fragile and critical; and also how strongly our emissions are tied to energy use.

How we apply these lessons to our energy future will determine our success in the fight against both COVID-19 and climate change.


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Marla Orenstein is the director of Natural Resource Centre, and Patrick Smith is a policy analyst, both with the Canada West Foundation.

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