How recovery from COVID-19's impact on energy demand could help meet climate targets

13 October 2021

New research involving the University of East Anglia examines different scenarios of energy-related demand and how they could impact climate mitigation targets.

It follows the pandemic-related drop in greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 possibly being the largest on record in a single year. However, how our recovery might affect future emissions is less clear.

A group of researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), including Charlie Wilson of UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences, performed a bottom-up assessment of changes in energy-related demand and estimated how new patterns of travel, work, consumption, and production might reduce or increase climate mitigation challenges. 

The research, published in Nature Energy, shows that a low energy demand recovery could reduce a hypothetical tax on all carbon emissions by 19% for a scenario that is on track for reaching the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. This scenario would also lower energy supply investments until 2030 by US$1.8 trillion and soften the pressure to quickly implement renewable energy technologies.

Prof Wilson said: "As we emerge out of lockdowns and Covid restrictions, will our new patterns of working, travelling, socialising, and shopping persist, or will they revert back to the ‘old normal’? What becomes normal in the next five years will shape efforts to tackle climate change for decades to come.

"Are we heading out of Covid back to the 'old normal' or towards a 'new normal'? The path we choose will have a major impact on the cost, speed, and likelihood of us successfully tackling climate change.

"Sustaining lower levels of car use, resource-efficient shopping, and digital forms of interaction as we move out of lockdowns can reduce the costs of tackling warming by over a trillion pounds worldwide over the next critical decade for climate change.

“Limiting global warming to 1.5°C will be exceptionally hard. A tiny silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud is that the 1.5°C target becomes that bit more achievable if we can selectively sustain some of the lower-carbon practices forced upon us by lockdowns.” 

Jarmo Kikstra, lead author of the study, said: “Many people have been wondering what the large changes in societies that came with the COVID-19 pandemic and its lockdowns mean for climate change.

“If societies are just moving back to old practices, the answer is that there is virtually no effect. However, if some of the changes in energy-use practices persist, climate mitigation challenges will be affected.”

“Our key finding is that missing the opportunity to retain low-energy practices in lifestyle and business would lead to a more difficult energy transition,” added co-author Adriano Vinca. “Our economic recovery and climate mitigation policies should embed strategies to retain the low energy demand practices observed during the pandemic, such as low-carbon mobility in cities and increased tele-conferencing.”

According to the authors, this is especially true when it comes to transportation. In particular, the different recovery narratives of transportation energy demand strongly influence CO2 emission trends.

The researchers examined four different scenarios, each with a consistent set of assumptions about changes in energy demand in buildings, transport, and industry sectors as the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In the “restore” scenario, the use of private vehicles, as well as the intensity of air transport are restored to pre-pandemic levels. The same holds for industrial activities and supply chains, as well as our working practices and domestic life. 

In the “self-reliance” scenario, concerns about health risks linger longer and individuals shift towards private transport while abandoning forms of crowded transport. Office and living space increase to carry on social distancing. In addition, demand for steel is especially strong due to reinvigorated car manufacturing and building construction.

In the “smart use” scenario, people adapt better to working from home and there is a moderate shift to teleworking. This leads to home space being used more intensively, and a slight reduction in motorized transportation growth, compared to pre-pandemic levels. However, a surge in online retailing increases overall road freight transportation.

In the last scenario, which the researchers call “green push”, the highest energy reductions are achieved by changes in space reallocation and reduced private transport. For instance, walking or cycling replaces some of the trips that were previously done by car, and empty offices are repurposed. 

The researchers conclude that compared to a “green push” scenario, the “restore” scenario would increase the energy investments required to meet a 1.5°C climate target by about 9% or $1.8 trillion. This difference is in part due to the need to boost the pace of transport electrification and the upscaling of solar and wind in the “restore” scenario.

“The bottom line is that the “green push” scenario, which supports working from home and teleconferencing to reduce flying and commuting can have strongly beneficial outcomes for climate mitigation challenges,” said IIASA Energy, Climate, and Environment Program Director and co-author, Keywan Riahi.

The authors further add that it is important to design holistic policies, including the repurposing of office space and the increased use of walking or cycling within cities or public transport when commuting.