Could Clean Air Outlast COVID-19’s Lockdowns?
Courtesy the coronavirus lockdowns, air pollution levels have dropped dramatically worldwide. With much less road traffic, thousands of airplanes grounded, about 20% of the world in lockdown, and factories shut, European cities experienced a 30% to 60% drop in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions. Manhattan’s air now has 10% less carbon dioxide and methane, and 50% less carbon monoxide, due to less exhaust fumes. London and other UK cities have seen up to 60% lower NO2 levels.
Less traffic means cleaner air. The Los Angeles area is having its longest stretch of “good” air quality since 1995. Gone is the familiar brownish haze that covers the city on workday afternoons. As statewide traffic fell 80%, air quality improved 20% in Southern California. In Delhi, India, levels of both small particulates and NO2 fell more than 70%. Blue skies replaced the region’s grey toxic haze.
In Paris, traffic declines caused a 30% reduction in air pollution. NO2 emissions fell by more than 60%. In Les Halles, one of Europe’s biggest shopping malls, one can hear birds singing. Who even knew there were birds at Les Halles?
The pandemic-caused global economic meltdown has triggered a drop in energy demand and related carbon emissions that could transform how the world gets its energy even after the disease wanes. According to a recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the precipitous drop in energy use is without parallel since the 1930s Great Depression. Fossil fuels, particularly coal and oil, account for the lion’s share of the decline. Renewable energy use, meanwhile, has risen thanks to the low cost of turning wind turbines and harvesting sunlight. The IEA report predicts a very different energy industry emerging from this crisis than the familiar one before.
Global energy demand is expected to drop by 6% in 2020, compared with 2019 — a seven times bigger decline than the one caused by the 2008 recession. The biggest change is predicted for the most developed economies, with a 9% decline in the US and 11% in the EU.
Carbon emissions from the energy sector are expected to fall by 8% for the year — almost 2.6 gigatons — the largest drop ever recorded and six times the decline following the last recession.
Demand for renewable energy is expected to grow 1% in 2020, driven by a 5% increase in renewable electricity. The contrast with fossil fuels stems largely from the low costs of generating electricity from wind, sunlight, and hydroelectric dams.
Annual forecasts could, of course, change depending on how long economies remain shut down by Covid-19. But the first 3 months of 2020 already tell a tale of swift and dramatic change. Global energy demand fell an estimated 3.8% — much of that in March.
In countries with strict lockdowns, energy demand fell 25%, as factories were shuttered and people stayed home. Demand fell 18% in nations with partial lockdowns. And demand for electricity — a subset of total energy — fell as much as 20% in locked-down countries, where daily consumption patterns resemble those of a typical Sunday.
Coal suffered the biggest demand-loss during the first quarter of 2020 — almost 8% vs. 2019 — due to the lockdown in China, competition from cheaper natural gas and renewable energy, and mild winter weather. Demand for oil fell by 5%, as car traffic was cut in half and air travel by 60% by the end of March. In contrast, renewable energy use rose 1.5% during the same period.
The pandemic has revealed an important downside to fossil fuels: the need for extensive storage systems and supply chains to move the fuels from their source and distribute them to users. These costs are always present, but when there’s so little demand, the need to store the excess produced overwhelms the infrastructure.
So, what will happen once the pandemic recedes and economies sputter back to life? Greenhouse gas emissions did resume following the last economic downturn. The IEA urges governments to put clean energy technologies “at the heart of their plans for economic recovery.” Some countries are already headed down that path. In South Korea, the ruling Democratic Party, which won a landslide victory last April, is calling for clean energy investment as part of its economic plan. German and UK officials have also said environmental concerns should drive recovery efforts.
Will politics-marinated ignorance cause the US to go back to the status quo ante? Or will our experience of cleaner air help win support for a sustainable future?