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The drop in global carbon dioxide emissions driven by the coronavirus pandemic could be lost once the crisis blows over, unless we shift to cleaner energy

Electricity demand has dropped due to global coronavirus lockdowns (Photo by Thomas Despeyroux)

Electricity demand has dropped due to global lockdowns forced by the Covid-19 pandemic (Photo by Thomas Despeyroux)

In the biggest shock to the worldwide energy system in 70 years precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the drop in power demand could lead to a decline of nearly 8% in energy related carbon dioxide emissions, new research has suggested.

Based on an analysis of more than 100 days of real data so far this year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in its latest report that energy demand will fall by an unprecedented 6% in 2020. This is seven times the decline after the 2008 global financial crisis, the Global Energy Review 2020 said on Thursday. It is the equivalent of losing the entire energy demand of India, the world’s third largest energy consumer, the review said.

“Such a contraction has not been seen in 70 years,” said Laura Cozzi, chief energy modeler at the IEA and one of the authors of the report. “It will lead to a big reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.” The projections of energy demand and energy-related emissions for 2020 are based on assumptions that the lockdowns implemented around the world in response to the pandemic are progressively eased in most countries in the coming months, accompanied by a gradual economic recovery.

“It is a historic decline but not a historic success,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of IEA. “It is still too early to determine the longer-term impacts, but the energy industry that emerges from this crisis will be significantly different from the one that came before.”

The IEA found that each month of worldwide lockdown reduces annual global energy demand by about 1.5%. Electricity demand is set to decline by 5% in 2020, the largest drop since the Great Depression in the 1930s, the report said.

Lockdown measures are also driving a major shift towards low-carbon sources of electricity. These sources are set to extend their lead this year to reach 40% of global electricity generation, which is 6 percentage points ahead of coal, IEA said. The combined share of gas and coal in the global power mix is set to drop by 3 percentage points in 2020 to a level not seen since 2001, the report found.

Hit on coal

Coal is particularly hard hit, with global demand projected to fall by 8% in 2020, the largest decline since the Second World War. Following its 2018 peak, coal-fired power generation is set to fall by more than 10% this year.

Renewables are set to be the only energy source that will grow in 2020, with their share of global electricity generation projected to jump due to priority access to grids and low operating costs. Despite supply chain disruptions, solar photovoltaic and wind power are on track to help lift renewable electricity generation by 5% in 2020, aided by higher output from hydropower, the review said.

“This crisis has underlined the deep reliance of modern societies on reliable electricity supplies for supporting healthcare systems, businesses and the basic amenities of daily life,” Birol said. “But nobody should take any of this for granted – greater investments and smarter policies are needed to keep electricity supplies secure.”

The 8% decrease in energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 will mean emissions will reach their lowest level since 2010, the report predicted. This would be the largest decrease in emissions ever recorded – six times larger than the previous record drop of 400 million tonnes in 2009 that resulted from the global financial crisis, it said.

However, “If the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis is anything to go by, we are likely to soon see a sharp rebound in emissions as economic conditions improve,” Birol said. “But governments can learn from that experience by putting clean energy technologies – renewables, efficiency, batteries, hydrogen and carbon capture – at the heart of their plans for economic recovery.”


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