When clouds gather, it’s natural for human beings to look for silver linings. There’s nothing wrong with that – it boosts morale. But the growing belief that, because of its impact on the global economy, the Covid-19 pandemic will be the solution to global warming is naive and dangerous.
The International Energy Agency is the latest to peddle such wishful thinking, which is apparently founded on observations of cleaner skies over dormant industrial areas and the sighting of fish for the first time in living memory in the waterways of Venice, now that it is empty of tourists.
The IEA was set up after the 1973 oil crisis to secure access to fossil fuels for energy-hungry industrial countries. Its 2020 Global Energy Review predicted that, thanks to Covid-19, the drop in demand for energy this year would dwarf the impact of the 2008 financial crisis and see a record decline in carbon emissions of almost 8 percent in 2020. “Only renewables are holding up during the previously unheard-of slump in electricity use,” claimed the executive director, Dr Fatih Birol.
It was, he conceded, “still too early to determine the longer-term impacts, but the energy industry that emerges from this crisis will be significantly different from the one that came before” – a prediction magnified in one typical news headline as “Covid-19 crisis will wipe out demand for fossil fuels, says IEA.”
It’s true that the use of renewables has been growing steadily without any help from Covid-19. But they were still only a minor part of the planet’s overall energy mix. According to the latest BP Statistical Review of World Energy – the globally recognized and definitive source of accurate energy data – in 2018, power generated by renewables grew by 14.5 percent but it still accounted for only a fraction of the world’s energy, especially in the Middle East, home to much of the world’s oil reserves.
In 2018, the world generated 26,614.8 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity. Renewables accounted for just 2,480.4 TWh, or 9.3 percent of that. China and the US recorded similar percentage shares, but in Europe renewables accounted for 18.6 percent of the energy mix in 2018.
Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have mapped out plans to diversify away from reliance upon fossil fuels, but it is still very early days. In 2018 they generated 383.8 and 136.9 TWh respectively; renewables were responsible for a mere 0.2 and 1.0 TWh. In the Middle East as a whole, renewables accounted for just 0.64 percent of generated electricity.
These cold hard facts make it clear that renewables are in no position to sweep away fossil fuels. To that we must add two other economic realities that shatter the fantasy that the pandemic will leave the world a greener place.
The first is the certainty that when the brakes finally come off, businesses and economies around the world will go into overdrive to make up for lost time and profits. This is already evident in the irresponsibly premature calls around the world for the lifting of lockdowns.
In the rush to get back on track, only fossil fuels – plentiful and instantly available – will be capable of meeting the sudden massive demand for energy. No one is going to be investing in long-term renewable projects. As a result, the environmental gains brought about by the virus will be short-lived. The fish will be gone from the canals of Venice.
The other factor is the vast stocks of oil that have built up. This is an economic reality that is building up like floodwater behind a weakening dam. With oil prices low and storage tanks filled to the brim, there are now reports of otherwise idle supertankers holding sufficient oil to supply the entire world’s daily demand twice over.
Like it or not, this pent-up tidal wave of oil is coming our way, at prices that few economies will be able to resist, to power an economic recovery that could well tip us over the cliff edge of global-warming.
As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said last month, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, as bad as Covid-19 is, climate disruption is approaching a point of no return and the planet’s environmental crisis is an “even deeper emergency.” He urged governments as they emerged from the pandemic to abandon fossil fuel subsidies and “invest in the future, not the past.”
Will they, though? Or will they seize on fossil-fuels to jump-start economies that have stalled at historically low levels?
In 2018 global energy consumption grew by 2.9 percent, the fastest rate since 2010. Carbon emissions also grew, up by 2 percent – the fastest increase for seven years. All fuels except for renewables grew faster than their 10-year averages.
Spencer Dale, BP’s chief economist, drew a gloomy conclusion from all this in his analysis for the 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy. “At a time when society is increasing its demands for an accelerated transition to a low carbon energy system,” he wrote, “the energy data for 2018 paint a worrying picture.” The reality was that the pace of progress “is falling well short of the accelerated transition envisaged by the Paris climate goals … the world is on an unsustainable path.”
Sadly, it is nothing more than wishful thinking to believe that, as the world emerges from the shadow of Covid-19, global economies will finally yield to the pleas of scientists and the UN and fully embrace renewables at the expense of fossil fuels, saving the world in the nick of time from irreversible global warming.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.