Will the post-pandemic world tackle climate change?

03 August 2020

By Michael Bradshaw and Caroline Kuzemko

In the film The Age of Stupid, an archivist in 2055, played by the late Pete Postlethwaite, asks: "Why didn’t we stop climate change when we had the chance?"

We believe the COVID-19 pandemic offers a significant ‘counterfactual opportunity’ for us to reflect back, at the end of this decade, on an opportunity missed or an opportunity taken to put the energy system on the path required to mitigate climate change.

Energy system transformation is made up of two interrelated processes, two sides of the same coin. On the one side, there is the ‘low-carbon energy transition’ that aims to decarbonise energy production and consumption. On the other, there is the ‘high-carbon energy transition’ associated with the decline of the incumbent fossil-fuel energy system. According to BP, in 2019 fossil fuels still accounted for 84.3 per cent of global primary energy consumption and renewables only five per cent.

In a ‘Perspectives’ piece published in Energy Research and Social Science, we distinguish between three time frames when considering the implications of COVID-19 for energy transitions. The short-term refers to the immediate impact of what the International Monetary Fund (IMF) called the ‘great lockdown'. The medium-term refers to the period between now and the end of 2021, when the focus is on a post-pandemic economic recovery. And the long-term refers to the period from 2022 to 2030 when the consequences of the decisions made now become apparent through the rate of global carbon emissions.

Even before the pandemic, a new energy age was emerging as rapidly falling costs of low-carbon technologies, together with policy support, were destabilising the incumbent fossil fuel industries. Ironically, technological change the shale revolution  had heralded an age of fossil fuel abundance just as demand was being constrained by climate policy.

Consequently, oil and gas markets were struggling with over-supply and low prices. On the eve of the lockdown, the ‘OPEC+’ coalition fractured, resulting in an oil price crash, then exacerbated by the dramatic fall in economic activity that resulted in a new agreement to constrain production. After a record fall, oil prices rebounded; but oil and gas companies have slashed their dividends, reduced investment, cut their workforces and are reassessing the value of their assets.

Equally, oil exporting states have faced a sharp reduction in income just as the social costs of the pandemic escalated. Much of this is not new as the oil and gas industry is both highly volatile and cyclical, but there is a growing sense that this time is different. Investment cuts now may result in tighter markets and higher prices in the second half of the 2020s as the global economy recovers. However, that may simply serve to accelerate decarbonisation in the 80 per cent of states that are not net fossil fuel exporters.

For some, peak global oil demand has already passed. This suggests that for oil and gas companies, and for the states that depend on their revenues, the time to prepare for a ‘world beyond oil’ is now. Failure to do so could result in social unrest and conflict in parts of the world that are already unstable.

What happens next is not a matter of technology – we have the technologies to meet net zero today. It is instead a matter of economics, (geo)politics, behaviour and societal expectations. The pandemic has prompted a scale of state intervention across the 37 countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that is unprecedented in peaceful times.

Widespread calls persist to ‘build back better’ via a ‘green recovery’ to accelerate the pace of decarbonisation – and in the UK the Government is being challenged to re-think its stimulus packages to date. However, as one influential group of academics put it: "There are reasons to fear that we will leap from the COVID frying pan into the climate fire."

Unfortunately, the experience of the 2008 financial crisis suggests that it will be all too easy to return to old habits, with a resumption in demand for fossil fuels and growing carbon emissions.

But there are reasons to be optimistic. The United Nation's Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals, both agreed in 2015, provide a ready-made blueprint for action. Equally, there is growing societal pressure to address climate change, added to which lockdown resulted in a period of cleaner air, making clear the causes of pollution.

There is ample evidence to suggest that investing in green growth results in better outcomes than supporting fossil fuel incumbents. Politicians tend, however, to focus on protecting the status quo. The Energy Policy Tracker is monitoring recovery packages across the G20 member states, and concludes that of the public money committed to the energy sector, $151 billion or 51 per cent is related to fossil fuels, though efforts in the US weigh heavily on these numbers.

In earlier research we developed four energy scenarios to 2030. Two illuminate the stark choices we face: one called the ‘Big Green Deal’, where policies, funding and co-operation drive rapid decarbonisation (akin to a Green Recovery); and a second called ‘Dirty Nationalism, which seems just as likely, where fossil fuel industries are protected and energy markets fragment.

Of course, such global scenarios are the outcome of a mosaic of different regional, national and local policies and outcomes. Consequently, the net impact of the current situation may look more like our third scenario: ‘Muddling on’, where fossil fuels dominate, and renewables fail to mitigate climate change. For the sake of completeness, our fourth scenario was called ‘Tech Breakthrough,’ where renewables surge and then slow as competition limits their spread.

It is too early to know what the long-term consequences of the pandemic will be. Much depends on the need to maintain social distancing and quarantine measures that will determine the pace of economic recovery, though few now expect a rapid ‘bounce back'.

Equally, the extent to which the behavioural changes imposed by the lockdown will result in lasting differences – in work patterns, attitudes to travel and personal consumption, all of which impact on energy demand – is also uncertain. One of us is a student of Russia’s transition during the 1990s and notes the words of the eminent Russian industrialist and politician Viktor Chernomyrdin who famously said: “We wanted the best, but it turned out like always.”

We must all do whatever we can to ensure that when we reflect back in 2030 on climate-related policies adopted now, things have turned out for the best.

The is article is republished from Originally posted on Campaign for Social Science.


Further reading:

Bazilian, M., Bradshaw, M. J., Gabriel, J., Goldthau, A. and Westphal, K. (2020) "Four scenarios of the energy transition : drivers, consequences, and implications for geopolitics", WIREs Climate Change.

Connolly, R., Hanson, P. and Bradshaw, M. J. (2020) "It’s déjà vu all over again : COVID-19, the global energy market, and the Russian economy", Eurasian Geography and Economics.

Kuzemko, C., Bradshaw, M. J., Bridge, G., Goldthau, A., Jewell, J., Overland, I., Scholten, D., Van de Graaf, T. and Westphal, K. (2020) "Covid-19 and the politics of sustainable energy transitions", Energy Research & Social Science.


Michael Bradshaw is Professor of Global Energy and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He teaches Managing in a New World on the Full-time MBA and Forecasting for Decision Makers on the suite of MSc Business courses.

Caroline Kuzemko is an Associate Professor in International Political Economy at the University of Warwick.

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