May 5, 2020

How the Covid-19 Pandemic Will Impact Global Transition to Renewable Energy

Original article published in News18

Last week, residents of Saharanpur, a small town in North-western Uttar Pradesh, woke up to a pleasing sight of snow-capped Himalayan mountains. The pictures of this rare scene, which by some estimates had not been witnessed in almost three decades, went viral on the internet.

Similarly, earlier in April, people in Punjab‘s Jalandhar city, were able to see Dhauladhar mountain range in the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh to its east, another rare occurrence happened.

Both of these events were credited to a dramatic dip in air pollution levels.

With manufacturing suspended and human activities restricted due to the nationwide lockdown imposed since March 24 to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, air pollution levels in India, which remain on the poorer side on most of the days, have seen a sharp decline.

The impact of the pandemic on the environment has not been limited to just India. With economic activities taking a hit, global greenhouse gas emissions too, have seen a significant drop in the initial months of 2020.

The Dhauladhar range in Himachal Pradesh as seen in Jalandhar | Image credit: Twitter

According to the Global Energy Review 2020 by the International Energy Agency (IEA), global CO2 emissions are expected to decline by 8 per cent in 2020 to the levels of 10 years ago. The study stated that this would be the largest ever year-on-year reduction in emissions and six-times larger than what was recorded during the 2008 financial crisis.

And it is this change that has motivated climate change activists to advocate more strongly for a rapid transition to renewable energy to sustain this singular positive impact of an otherwise one of the most terrible crises that humankind has had to face in decades.

Another report by IEA released last year, expected the renewable energy sector, which has seen rapid growth in recent years, to grow by 1,200GW or 50 per cent in the next five years driven mainly by solar power.

The report also predicted renewable energy sources to account for 30 per cent of the total global electricity generation by 2024, a 4 percentage-point increase from 2019 levels.

Share of Renewables in Electricity Production, 1990-2018

(All figures in %)


Source: Enerdata

However, with the global economy under its deepest recession in nearly a century and oil prices registering record lows, uncertainty looms large over how governments across the world would react when they begin fixing the damages caused due to the pandemic.

Dr Peter Fox-Penner, Director of Institute for Sustainable Energy at Boston University, told in an email interview, that he expected the pandemic and economic crisis to, in fact, accelerate the transition to clean energy in the long-run.

“The crisis has given people all over the world a deep feeling that global environmental and health threats can be real, and must be dealt with in advance, rather than waiting for them to become emergencies. This, in turn, is making the business and government sectors think about how to accelerate the clean energy transition,” he said adding that he expected renewable energy activity to eventually hit a faster path than it was on before the crisis, as business restarts.

Addressing the issue of stagnation in the industry in the immediate future, Professor Fox-Penner explained: “I agree that some government stimulus and restart policies will slow down the transition in the near-term. [For instance], the Chinese have relaxed their electric vehicle mandates and the US has wrongheadedly rolled back auto fuel economy standards. I think there is going to be a ‘new normal’ after the crisis that has less travel and, therefore, fewer transport emissions, but electricity use will continue to grow and travel will gradually return.”

Entrepreneurs in the renewable energy space share the same view.

Rajat Verma, the founder of Lohum Cleantech, a start-up engaged in eco-friendly battery solutions, agreed that the industry may observe short-term delays due to global economic repercussions of Covid-19 pandemic but that would not hinder the growth of the renewable energy sector in the longer run.

“This decade is all about substantially increasing renewable capacity as countries like India react to climate change and embrace what technology is making possible: clean, affordable, accessible energy that also leads to a cleaner environment. In the long run governments, businesses and financial markets will press forward on the path toward clean energy and away from hydrocarbons,” Verma said.

Verma added that early-stage companies such as his own “will drive innovation across the clean energy ecosystem – renewables and EVs – and help power this green growth led by India…we have a great opportunity and also a great responsibility.”

While most studies expect renewables to witness growth in 2020 albeit at a slower pace compared with previous years, concerns remain over a global increase in emissions after the crisis is contained as economies look for recovery.

The IEA report noted that global emissions usually tend to rebound after a crisis has passed. “And 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,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the executive director of IEA, at the launch of the report last week.

These concerns are valid. After the financial crisis of 2008, global emissions had rebounded by 2010 to levels higher than ever recorded before as countries depended heavily on fossil fuels to stage a quick recovery from recession .

However, “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, said Dr Birol adding that investing in those areas can create jobs, make economies more competitive, and steer the world towards a more resilient and cleaner energy future.

Even though the improvement in pollution levels and decline in emissions may not be something to be too elated about in the face of terrible disruptions caused by the pandemic, it does reaffirm the importance and the need to urgently switch to renewable energy sources.