Apr 30, 2020 - Energy & Environment

A stunning energy shock and emissions decline

Adapted from IEA; Chart: Axios Visuals

The COVID-19 pandemic is the "biggest shock to the global energy system in seven decades," the International Energy Agency said Thursday in unveiling a report that estimates big drops in energy use and carbon emissions this year.

What they found: IEA projects (with caveats because the whole thing is still unfolding) that global CO2 emissions will decline by 8% in 2020, or by nearly 2.6 gigatons.

  • That's six times more than the decline after the financial crisis over a decade ago and "twice as large as the combined total of all previous reductions since the end of World War II," the report notes.
  • IEA is projecting a 6% decline in global energy demand as use of power and transportation fuels decline, "the largest in 70 years in percentage terms and the largest ever in absolute terms."
  • Near-term reductions are much steeper, with IEA noting that countries in "full lockdown" are seeing an average 25% decline in weekly energy demand.

How it works: The pandemic is having an uneven effect on the energy landscape.

  • Oil consumption is projected to see the sharpest annual decline on a percentage basis at 9% as the pandemic crushes demand for transportation fuels.
  • Coal demand is projected to decline by 8%, with smaller reductions in demand for natural gas and nuclear energy.
  • Only renewables see a slight uptick, "because of low operating costs and preferential access to many power systems," IEA notes.

What we don't know: How much those projections will match what ultimately unfolds.

  • IEA's cautions that its estimates assume a "widespread global recession caused by months-long restrictions on mobility and social and economic activity," and that "recovery from the depths of the lockdown recession is only gradual."

The intrigue: The unprecedented emissions cuts, happening for tragic reasons, have also served to illustrate the immense challenge of battling global warming.

  • That's because experts say substantial declines will be needed every year to meet the ambitious goals of the Paris climate agreement.
  • "By 2030, emissions would need to be 25 percent and 55 percent lower than in 2018 to put the world on the least-cost pathway to limiting global warming to below 2˚C and 1.5°C respectively," the United Nations said in a report last year.
  • The Washington Post notes that some analysts have been surprised that the emissions declines haven't been even steeper, given the pandemic-related activity restrictions.
  • "It’s a sobering reminder of how hard it is to get off of oil and decarbonize the global economy," Jason Bordoff, head of a Columbia University energy think tank, tells the paper.

The big picture: IEA executive director Fatih Birol called the emissions drop "absolutely nothing to cheer" because it's rooted in premature death and economic trauma.

  • IEA used the findings to reinforce his call for economic rescue packages that boost climate-friendly energy sources.
  • "As after previous crises...the rebound in emissions may be larger than the decline, unless the wave of investment to restart the economy is dedicated to cleaner and more resilient energy infrastructure," the report states.

What's next: Glen Peters of Norway's Center for International Climate Research noted that while emissions will of course rebound to some degree, the landscape may have changed fundamentally.

  • "The big takeaway is that fossil fuels are getting hit way harder than renewables," he said in this Twitter thread on the findings. "When the world rebounds, we may be in a 'new normal' with renewables causing declining CO₂ emissions!"
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