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Opinion: Is Coronavirus a Climate Tipping Point?

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The coronavirus crisis will cause renewable energy and electric vehicle penetration to slow down or shrink this year, and for a few months, governments will have other priorities than the climate, but this is all anecdotal. So is the decrease in carbon emissions the mounting recession has triggered. What is more substantial -- and paradoxical, because coronavirus has nothing to do with climate change -- is that it will probably accelerate the low-carbon transition. As time passes, it has become increasingly clear that an orderly transition based on voluntary action, technology, free markets and a hint of policy is a fiction, and many have been wondering what could force the world to become serious about climate change (NE Sep.19'19). A catastrophe, perhaps, such as the recent wildfires in Australia? The Covid-19 pandemic and the global economic crash it will cause certainly have the required magnitude, and even though it is not related to climate, it comes with all the features a future climate crisis could show -- except it is happening now, and in fast motion. It is global and ignores national borders. It is non-linear, meaning it is rapidly accelerating as negative factors -- such as the number of infected people and the lack of sufficient protective measures -- accumulate and reinforce each other. Climate scientists similarly warn about non-linear effects such as "Arctic feedbacks" that could accelerate climate change through carbon releases from thawing permafrost and higher solar absorption following loss of sea ice and land snow (NE Feb.27'20). The pandemic also shows that science is to be believed. It is not hard to predict that, from now on, denying climate change against scientific evidence will no longer work. Deniers, especially in the US, have been using the uncertainty on some of the consequences of global warming as an argument for inaction (NE May2'19). That won't work anymore. Medicine, after all, is a softer and more uncertain science than climatology, and no one questions that coronavirus is bad and must be tackled. The trend is clear -- and scary -- even though the exact trajectory may be fuzzy. Perhaps more importantly, the virus crisis shows that drastic policies can be centrally decided, quickly implemented and well accepted, even in democratic societies such as those of Western Europe. By contrast, the US' decentralized and fragmented response to the coronavirus crisis could have dramatic effects that could later turn the political tide toward seeing the urgency of climate change, and trigger strong policies at federal level. The sense of risk people across the world are acquiring, combined with the demonstration that such risk can be overcome with adequate policies and regardless of costs, is unlikely to be forgotten when climate climbs back on top of agendas. Societies have short memory, critics will object. This is true but, fortunately enough, the coronavirus pandemic is timely: climate action is required now, and we won't have time to forget the lesson (NE Aug.29'19). When it comes to the oil sector, the coronavirus scare shows how fragile transport demand is (NE Jan.2'20). It is of course reinforcing trends that were already causing doubts around forecasts that air traffic will increase rapidly in the years ahead. These include flight shaming, safety concerns triggered by Boeing's 737 Max debacle and mounting frustration with mass tourism in certain places, particularly in Europe. But transport demand fragility goes far beyond just air travel. Digitalization, which has already reduced the need for in-person business trips, is now demonstrating that people can effectively work and study from home, and avoid millions of kilometers of daily commuting. Current disruptions, including for vital products such as pharmaceutical active ingredients, will also encourage industrial companies -- and governments -- to reconsider supply chains, and presumably favor local over global at the expense of transportation. In the power sector, this will favor renewables even more over fossil fuels, as nature delivers sunlight and wind everywhere for free. People in rich countries may even realize they do not need all the gadgets they have, which could fundamentally alter future growth rates. Finally, one can wonder about the ongoing oil price war. Cheap oil may help the ailing economy, but prices would have dipped anyway. If this is really the climate tipping point, low prices may fail to boost demand when the virus crisis is over. Indeed, they may never recover completely because producer prices will matter less and less in a world where oil needs to be expensive enough to discourage consumption. This means that low-cost exporters such as Saudi Arabia will not have guaranteed markets if their production is too carbon-intensive or if they fail to reinvest in clean technologies. Consumer countries may decide to tax "unethical" oil more than average to capture the benefits of low production costs and favor greener competitors. Philippe Roos, Strasbourg

Topics:
Oil Demand, Carbon Capture (CCS), Low-Carbon Policy, Policy and Regulation, Policy and Regulation, Electric Vehicles, Fiscal Terms
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