Mar 27, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Imagining a new energy normal after coronavirus

Illustration of an oil flowing into a hole from an oil barrel

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

One thing to watch once this tragic crisis passes is what forms of enforced behavior stick around by choice after lockdowns end — and what it means for energy use.

Where it stands: Global oil demand has collapsed as lots of air and vehicle travel has stopped, and billions of people worldwide are cutting back or halting their movements.

  • It's not so clear that everyone's life will simply snap back into its old form — especially people lucky enough to have jobs that enable working from home.
  • And the changes go beyond just having your cats as officemates, especially as technology around remote interactions evolves.

Energy analyst Michael Liebreich posted a wide-ranging analysis yesterday on the energy dimensions of the crisis.

  • One of his points: "Many of the new forms of behavior we adopt through necessity are going to prove sticky — and given that most of them involve staying at home or staying local, they are going to act as powerful long-term brakes on emission growth."
  • His piece in BloombergNEF explores ways that work, business travel, remote health care, schooling, urban infrastructure and more could be reshaped.

Climate expert Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, mentions a similar point in this thorough blog post from the university's Earth Institute, saying we're “learning more about how much face-to-face interaction is and is not essential."

  • “We’re all struggling to communicate virtually, and we’ll learn a lot more about the contexts in which travel can be avoided without great loss from face-to-face interaction," Gerrard said.
  • "This could ultimately help us deal with climate change because we will see what chunk of [our interactions] can be reduced by electronic communication."

But, but, but: No sane people — and certainly not the two men quoted above — are welcoming the COVID-19 pandemic or calling it anything other than a tragedy.

  • And a number of experts (Gerrard among them) fear that the coronavirus is serving to sap resources and policymakers' focus on climate change as they address the crisis.
  • The Breakthrough Institute estimates that the coronavirus will drive a 0.5% to 2.2% cut in global CO2 emissions this year, but says overall the effect will "be neither strong enough nor prolonged enough to meaningfully alter our climate’s trajectory."

The bottom line: It's nonetheless worth thinking about how COVID-19 could re-shape people's lives once the crisis is over.

Go deeper: How Congress' coronavirus stimulus would affect the energy industry

Go deeper