How we recover from COVID-19 disruption will affect how we meet climate targets


Digital sign in a city that reads: 'Stop the spread of COVID-19 - avoid unnecessary travel'

Whether we return to ‘normal’ or change the way we work and travel will affect how hard it is to reach targets for limiting climate change.

The pandemic-related drop in greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 was likely the largest on record in a single year, but how our recovery might affect future emissions is less clear. New modelling, led by the IIASA (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis) and including Imperial College London researchers, examines alternative scenarios and how they could impact climate mitigation targets.

If some of the [pandemic-related] changes in energy-use practices persist, climate mitigation challenges will be affected. Jarmo Kikstra

The team assessed changes in energy-related demand and estimated how new patterns of travel, work, consumption, and production might reduce or increase climate mitigation challenges. The results show that a greener recovery that particularly reduces emissions from transport would mean reaching targets that limit climate change are cheaper and easier to attain.

The research, published today 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 above pre-industrial levels.

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.

Retaining low energy demand

Lead author of the study Jarmo Kikstra, from the IIASA and the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial, 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.” Jarmo is a research postgraduate and member of the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet DTP at Imperial.

Coauthor Adriano Vinca, from the IIASA, added: “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. 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 teleconferencing.”

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.

Making a 'green push'

The researchers examined four different scenarios that assessed 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.

Person sitting on the floor with a laptop, surrounded by papers, pens, and a catIn 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.

Coauthor Dr Charlie Wilson from the IIASA said: “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.”


Climate mitigation scenarios with persistent COVID-19-related energy demand changes’ by Jarmo S. Kikstra, Adriano Vinca, Francesco Lovat, Benigna Boza-Kiss, Bas van Ruijven, Charlie Wilson, Joeri Rogelj, Behnam Zakeri, Oliver Fricko and Keywan Riahi is published in Nature Energy.

Based on a press release by the IIASA.



Hayley Dunning

Hayley Dunning
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Climate-change, Comms-strategy-Real-world-benefits, Coronavirus, Energy, COVIDWEF, Global-challenges-Natural-world
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