How The Current Pandemic Reveals The Urgency Of The Renewable Energy Transition

September 22, 2020


Around the world, communities are combating the COVID-19 pandemic with aggressive social distancing measures designed to reduce interactions and curb the spread of the virus. These measures are absolutely necessary, but there is little doubt that they are also driving a range of negative impacts for the poor, the disabled, the mental health of individuals in isolation, and—of course— the global economy. However, given the immense costs of social distancing, it may be surprising to learn that there is one arena where social distancing has proven to deliver some significant benefits: the environment. 

Much has been made in recent weeks of how social distancing measures in communities around the globe have led to positive outcomes for the environment. In China, where the virus first emerged, air pollution has fallen by a stunning 40% as of mid-March—a shift so dramatic that it’s visible from space. Similar results have been found in New York City, where researchers observed a 10% drop in carbon dioxide and methane during the month of March, as well as a stunning 50% reduction in carbon monoxide levels. Meanwhile, in Italy, one of the early epicenters of the outbreak, the famous canals that crisscross the city of Venice are now clear and filled with discernible marine life for the first time in decades. The list goes on

What It Really Takes to Stop Climate Change

Early estimates suggest that the slowing of global economic activity induced by the coronavirus could reduce worldwide CO2 emissions in 2020 by roughly 4%, as compared to the 2019 total. Many observers are seeing this as a rare bright spot in an otherwise gloomy situation, but this optimism may very well be misplaced.

The truth of the matter is that a 4% reduction in annual CO2 emissions is a great start, but still falls short of the 7.6% annual reduction that the U.N. estimates will be needed every year for the next decade to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. And, as the Atlantic Council’s Randolph Bell notes in comments made at the end of March, achieving this reduction in global emissions has been no small feat. In fact, it has required a global pandemic that caused thousands of deaths, rapidly increasing unemployment rates, and profound levels of economic dislocation far beyond any crisis in living memory.

For years, governments and corporations have attempted to address the climate crisis with little more than half measures and good intentions. The U.N. has repeatedly warned that the goals established in international efforts like the Paris climate accord don’t go far enough to avert climate catastrophe, and yet humanity consistently falls short of meeting even those modest ambitions. Now, the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the incredible scale of action that must be taken to make a real difference. What will be needed to truly address climate change is a wholesale change in the energy we use globally.

Sadly, with little support for alternative energy included in the United States’ coronavirus stimulus bills, it would seem that policymakers aren’t getting the message

Renewables As National Security Investment

For the U.S., alternative energy investment isn’t just a matter of environmental stewardship; it’s also a serious national security concern. The ongoing oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia serves as a potent reminder that those two countries still exert near total control over the fossil fuel market, and can easily drive U.S. suppliers out of business. 

The U.S. government has so far been all but powerless to stop the negative effects of such market volatility. Despite the Trump administration’s interventions in helping to secure an OPEC deal designed to put the conflict to rest, oil prices still hit record lows and dipped into negative territory for the first time ever just a week after the deal was announced. Now hundreds of U.S. oil companies are facing bankruptcy while tens of thousands of oil and gas sector employees face the threat of job loss. 

The renewables market, by contrast, is all but impervious to this kind of outside interference. By shifting to greater usage of renewable energy, the U.S. could set itself on the path to eliminating its dependence on foreign oil altogether. Renewable energy can also help America reduce its reliance on its aging and unstable energy grid, which is not only subject to regular outages caused by extreme weather events, but also extremely vulnerable to cyber attacks

Foreign adversaries may be able to threaten the U.S.’s oil supply and even its energy infrastructure, but America will always have access to wind and solar power. With increasingly sophisticated hydrogen production techniques such as the electrolyzers enabling that energy to be converted into clean-burning hydrogen fuel for long-term storage, there’s little reason for Americans to be threatened by energy sector instability ever again. 

Supporting The Renewables Sector During The COVID-19 Crisis

Much like the rest of the energy sector and many other industries, the renewables market has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Companies in the sector now face numerous challenges. These include frozen project pipelines, missed deadlines for existing projects driven by shelter-in-place orders, and likely decreases in sales for electric vehicles, biofuels, and other products that could do lasting damage to U.S. efforts to keep pace with foreign competitors. Additionally, these setbacks make it increasingly difficult to hit the 7.6% emission drop needed in order to avoid a climate crisis. 

It is all but certain that the U.S. government will work to pass additional coronavirus-related legislation in the weeks and months to come. Policymakers would do well to use these upcoming legislative efforts as an opportunity to provide needed support for the renewable energy sector. To do so, the next stimulus bill should include—at a minimum—extensions for the clean energy tax credit that will soon be phased out, as well as new financing measures and incentives for renewable projects. This will not only ensure a bright future for our environment and the clean energy transition, but for the country’s long-term national security interests as well. 

First published by the Forbes Tech Council June 2, 2020.