3 ways COVID-19 is making us rethink energy and emissions

Lockdowns, travel restrictions, and economic turmoil are altering the energy sector­—and could be changing the way we think about the future of energy as the climate changes.

This story appears in the November 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

1. COVID-19 will likely bring about a record single-year reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Is this the beginning of the end for carbon?

Global emissions were projected to peak in 2024, but COVID-19 could accelerate the process. This year’s decline might herald an earlier transition to falling CO2 levels. Reflecting no structural changes, however, 2020 lockdown-driven declines are unstable and temporary. Looking forward, keeping global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels is achievable, but would require immediate, drastic emissions cuts, sustained year after year for decades, until net emissions are zero.

Global daily energy-

related emissions

Projected scenarios

Million metric

tons of CO

100

-8%

2020 annual

change,

projected

80

60

40

20

2008

Financial

crisis

0

1950

2000

’20

’50

2100

Projected scenarios

Current trajectory (3.1°C/5.6°F by 2100*)

The world continues along its present path, without any additional changes in policy.

Intended trajectory (2.8°C/5°F)

This scenario reflects the impact of existing policy frameworks and today’s announced policy intentions.

Sustainable scenario (1.7°C/3.0°F)

Rapid global mitigation holds the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C/3.6°F.

*Above preindustrial levels

Warming from these future scenarios are estimations only and prone to uncertainties in climate sensitivity and carbon cycle feedbacks.

Projections add emissions from industrial processes such as cement calcination.

-

411.5

408.6

414.3

Pre-COVID

projection

414.0

Revised projection with impacts of COVID

2018

2019

2020

Sources: International Energy Agency; Pandemic Emissions: Le Quéré and others, Nature Climate Change 2020; current and intended trajectories warming and estimated Emissions 2040-2100: Zeke Hausfather, The Breakthrough Institute; Concentration: Met office Hadley Centre

Emissions projections: IEA Current Policies Scenario, Stated Policies Scenario, and Sustainable Development Scenario

Global daily energy-related emissions

Million metric tons of CO

100

In 2015 warming reached 1°C/1.8°F.*

Financial

crisis

80

-8%

2020

annual

change,

projected

60

Second oil shock

40

First oil shock

20

Net zero emissions by 2070

World War II

1918 flu

(Spanish flu)

Great

Depression

Projected

0

1900

1950

2000

2020

2050

2100

*Above preindustrial levels

Projected scenarios

Warming from these future scenarios are estimations only and prone to uncertainties in climate sensitivity and carbon cycle feedbacks.

Projections add emissions from industrial processes such as cement calcination.

Current trajectory (3.1°C/5.6°F by 2100*)

The world continues along its present path, without any additional changes in policy.

Intended trajectory (2.8°C/5°F)

This scenario reflects the impact of existing policy frameworks and today’s announced policy intentions.

Sustainable scenario (1.7°C/3.0°F)

Rapid global mitigation holds the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C/3.6°F.

0

Parts per million of CO

2018

408.6

2019

411.5

2020

414.3

Pre-COVID projection

414.0

Revised projection with impacts of COVID

Sources: International Energy Agency; Pandemic Emissions: Le Quéré and others, Nature Climate Change 2020; current and intended trajectories warming and estimated Emissions 2040-2100: Zeke Hausfather, The Breakthrough Institute; Concentration: Met office Hadley Centre

Emissions projections: IEA Current Policies Scenario, Stated Policies Scenario, and Sustainable Development Scenario

Current trajectory (3.1°C/5.6°F by 2100*)

The world continues along its present

path, without any additional changes

in policy.

100

Intended trajectory (2.8°C/5°F)

This scenario reflects the impact of

existing policy frameworks and today’s

announced policy intentions.

In 2015 warming reached 1°C/1.8°F.*

January 1

June 11

Financial

crisis

80

-8%

2020

annual

change,

projected

2020

daily

change

Sustainable scenario (1.7°C/3.0°F)

Rapid global mitigation holds the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C/3.6°F.

60

Second oil shock

40

First oil shock

20

World War II

Net zero emissions by 2070

1918 flu

(Spanish flu)

Great

Depression

Projected

0

1900

1950

2000

2020

2020

2050

2100

J

F

M

A

M

J

*Above preindustrial levels

Warming from these future scenarios are estimations only and prone to uncertainties in climate sensitivity and carbon cycle feedbacks.

Projections add emissions from industrial processes such as cement calcination.

0

Parts per million of CO

2018

408.6

2019

411.5

2020

414.3

Pre-COVID projection

414.0

Revised projection with impacts of COVID

Sources: International Energy Agency; Pandemic Emissions: Le Quéré and others, Nature Climate Change 2020; current and intended trajectories warming and estimated Emissions 2040-2100: Zeke Hausfather, The Breakthrough Institute; Concentration: Met office Hadley Centre

Emissions projections: IEA Current Policies Scenario, Stated Policies Scenario, and Sustainable Development Scenario

2. COVID-19 illustrated individual actions are not enough to curtail warming.

A review of the impacts of COVID-19 on energy sources and sectors shows that to limit warming, we must shift to alternative sources, enhance energy efficiency, and improve the systems that transport and store energy.

Annual global energy demand by source

Million metric tons of oil equivalent

2020

projected

2019

2040

Sustainable

scenario

Oil

-9%

Coal

-8

Gas

-5

Nuclear

-3

Renewables

+1

0

1

2

3

4,000

2020Oil use plummeted when aviation and other transport—nearly 60 percent of global demand—were slowed by COVID-19 restrictions.

2040 In a sustainable scenario, renewables—mostly wind and solar—rise from 14 percent to 34 percent of total energy demand, replacing fossil fuels.

2020

max daily

change

2019

2040

Sustainable

scenario

Aviation

-62%

Commercial and public activities

-21

Residential

+3

Transport

-36

Industry

-19

Power

-7

0

10

20

30

40

2020COVID-driven declines are unsustainable and inefficient, with relatively small impacts on the largest-emitting sectors.

2040 Emissions fall as electricity replaces fossil fuels in industry and transport; renewables and nuclear power help decarbonize the grid.

Closing the gap between emission

scenarios

Existing and future technologies (such as

carbon capture) as well as focused poli-

cies could accelerate a global energy

transformation in the direction of a sus-

tainable future scenario. The first step,

however, is to better align our current

trajectory with intended policy goals.

45

Current

trajectory

(3.1°C/5.6°F*)

Reduction methods to reach the sustainable scenario

36

Renewables

Intended

trajectory

(2.8°C/5°F)

Wind power

Solar PV power

Biofuels transport

Hydropower

Other

Efficiency

Industry

Buildings

Cars and trucks

Aviation/shipping

Other

Other

Fuel switching

Carbon capture,

utilization,

and storage

Resource efficiency

Behavioral change

Electric vehicles

Nuclear

10

Sustainable

scenario

(1.7°C/3.0°F)

0

*Above preindustrial levels by 2100

sources: International Energy Agency; Le Quéré and others, Nature Climate Change 2020 (emissions from cement calcination omitted)

Annual global energy demand by source

2020 Oil use plummeted when aviation and other transport—nearly 60 percent of global demand—were slowed by COVID-19 restrictions.

2040 In a sustainable scenario, renewables—mostly wind and solar—rise from 14 percent to 34 percent of total energy demand, replacing fossil fuels.

Million metric tons of oil equivalent

2020

projected

2019

2040

Sustainable

scenario

-9%

4,000

-8

-5

3,000

+1

2,000

1,000

-3

0

Oil

Coal

Gas

Nuclear

Renewables

Power

40

-7

Million metric tons of CO

30

2020

daily

2019

2040

Sustainable

scenario

Transport

20

Industry

-19

-36

10

Residential

Commercial

and public

activities

+3

Aviation

Jan. 1

June 11

-21

-62%

0

Closing the gap between emission scenarios

Existing and future technologies (such as carbon capture) as well as focused policies could accelerate a global energy transformation in the direction of a sustainable future scenario. The first step, however, is to better align our current trajectory with intended policy goals.

Current trajectory

(3.1°C/5.6°F*)

Reduction methods to reach the

sustainable scenario

40

Billion metric tons CO

Intended trajectory

(2.8°C/5°F)

Industry

Efficiency

Buildings

Cars and trucks

Aviation and shipping

30

Other

Renewables

Wind power

Solar PV power

Biofuels transport

Other

20

Hydropower

Nuclear

Other

Fuel switching

Electric vehicles

Carbon capture,

utilization, and storage

Sustainable

scenario

(1.7°C/3.0°F)

Behavioral change

Resource efficiency

10

0

2010

2020

2030

2040

2050

*Above preindustrial levels by 2100

sources: International Energy Agency; Le Quéré and others, Nature Climate Change 2020 (emissions from cement calcination omitted)

40

-7

Annual global energy demand by source

2020 Oil use plummeted when aviation and other transport—nearly 60 percent of global demand—were slowed by COVID-19 restrictions.

2040 In a sustainable scenario, renewables—mostly wind and solar—rise from 14 percent to 34 percent of total energy demand, replacing fossil fuels.

30

Million metric tons of oil equivalent

Million metric tons of CO

20

2020

projected

2020

daily

2019

2040

Sustainable

scenario

2019

2040

Sustainable

scenario

-9%

4,000

-8

-19

-5

-36

3,000

10

+1

2,000

+3

June 11

1,000

-3

Jan. 1

-21

-62%

0

0

Oil

Coal

Gas

Nuclear

Renewables

Commercial

and public

activities

Residential

Industry

Aviation

Transport

Power

Closing the gap between emission scenarios

Existing and future technologies (such as carbon capture) as well as focused policies could accelerate a global energy transformation in the direction of a sustainable future scenario. The first step, however, is to better align our current trajectory with intended policy goals.

Current trajectory

(3.1°C/5.6°F*)

Reduction methods to reach the

sustainable scenario

40

Intended trajectory

(2.8°C/5°F)

Billion metric tons CO

Wind power

Renewables

Solar PV power

Biofuels transport

30

Hydropower

Other

Efficiency

Industry

Buildings

Cars and trucks

Aviation/shipping

20

Other

Other

Fuel switching

Carbon capture,

utilization, and storage

Resource efficiency

Sustainable

scenario

(1.7°C/3.0°F)

Behavioral change

Electric vehicles

10

Nuclear

0

2010

2020

2030

2040

2050

sources: International Energy Agency; Le Quéré and others, Nature Climate Change 2020 (emissions from cement calcination omitted)

*Above preindustrial levels by 2100

3. Economic recovery plans today will determine our climate’s future.

Energy investment had been projected to grow in 2020, but COVID-19 has put the world on track for the largest decline on record: a reduction of one-fifth—nearly $400 billion—compared with 2019. Fossil fuels accounted for almost all of the loss, driven by lower demand, falling prices, and market volatility.
Governments are now making decisions that will shape infrastructure, industry, and the climate for decades. Stimulus packages offer a unique opportunity to boost economic growth while also building a more sustainable future. The increasing affordability of renewables and the potential for millions of new clean-energy jobs are two benefits for governments to consider when structuring COVID-19 economic recovery plans. (Find out why we shouldn't waste this crucial moment to prevent climate disasters.)

World energy investment

In 2014 a downturn in oil prices slashed investment in oil and gas; competitive renewables hurt coal investments.

$1,500 billion

2019 dollars

1,000

Projected

500

0

2000

’10

’20

’30

’40

Fossil fuels*

Electricity networks and battery storage

Renewables

Energy efficiency†

Nuclear

*Fuel supply and fossil-fuel-based power

†Data prior to 2014 not available

Cost of electricity, United States

Dollars per megawatt-hour, 2019 dollars

$150

New capacity

Existing capacity

120

90

Projected

60

Offshore

wind

Gas

Coal

30

Onshore

wind

Solar

0

2014

’20

2050

In about two-thirds of the world, wind and solar are the least expensive new energy sources.

Global energy-sector jobs

Fossil fuels

Nuclear

Energy flexibility and grid

Energy efficiency

Renewables

Current trajectory

0

20

40

60

80

million

jobs

2017

2030

2050

Below 2°C/3.6°F target scenario

2017

2030

2050

20

60

80

100

0

40

A swift, broad shift to clean energy could create seven million more jobs than the trajectory we’re on.

sources: INTERNATIONAL ENERGY AGENCY; BloombergNEF; International Renewable Energy Agency

World energy investment

$1,500 billion

2019 dollars

In 2014 a downturn in oil prices slashed investment in oil and gas; competitive renewables hurt coal investments.

2040

$921

billion

2030

$776

billion

1,000

Projected

Fossil

fuels*

2019

$343

billion

500

Renewables

Electricity

networks

and battery

storage

Energy

efficiency†

Nuclear

0

2000

2010

2020

2030

2040

*Fuel supply and fossil-fuel-based power

†Data prior to 2014 not available

Cost of electricity, United States

In about two-thirds of the world, wind and solar are the least expensive new energy sources.

Dollars per megawatt-hour, 2019 dollars

$150

120

New capacity

Existing capacity

90

Projected

60

Offshore

wind

Gas

Coal

30

Onshore

wind

Solar

0

2014

’20

2050

Global energy-sector jobs

A swift, broad shift to clean energy could create

seven million more jobs than the trajectory we’re on.

’30

’50

100

million

jobs

2030

2050

80

2017

’17

60

Renewables

Energy efficiency

40

Energy flexibility

and grid

Nuclear

20

Fossil fuels

0

Current

trajectory

Below 2°C/3.6°F

target scenario

sources: INTERNATIONAL ENERGY AGENCY; BloombergNEF; International Renewable Energy Agency

World energy investment

$1,500 billion

2019 dollars

In 2014 a downturn in oil prices slashed investment in oil and gas; competitive renewables hurt coal investments.

2040

$921

billion

2030

$776

billion

1,000

Projected

Fossil

fuels*

2019

$343

billion

500

Renewables

Electricity networks

and battery

storage

Energy

efficiency†

Nuclear

0

2000

2010

2020

2030

2040

*Fuel supply and fossil-fuel-based power

†Data prior to 2014 not available

Cost of electricity, United States

In about two-thirds of the world, wind and solar are the least expensive new energy sources.

Global energy-sector jobs

A swift, broad shift to clean energy could create

seven million more jobs than the trajectory we’re on.

’30

’50

Dollars per megawatt-hour, 2019 dollars

100

million

jobs

$150

2030

2050

80

120

New capacity

2017

’17

60

Existing capacity

90

Renewables

Projected

Energy efficiency

40

60

Offshore

wind

Energy flexibility

and grid

Gas

Nuclear

Coal

20

30

Onshore

wind

Fossil fuels

Solar

0

0

Current

trajectory

Below 2°C/3.6°F

target scenario

2014

’20

2050

sources: INTERNATIONAL ENERGY AGENCY; BloombergNEF; International Renewable Energy Agency