Energy transition, like coronavirus response, is a global scale problem that will rely on sub-national actors to pick up the slack where national and international action falls short
Coronavirus shows us how governments worldwide respond to an urgent and pressing problem on the type of scale that climate change is expected to impact over the next several decades.
An energy transition ending reliance on fossil fuels is key to mitigating climate change, and the speed at which this transition happens will determine the level of warming that is unavoidably locked in. Efforts such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Accords attempted to foster international collaboration to address climate change including fostering an energy transition, with limited success.
COVID-19 has demonstrated that international cooperation on the scale needed for a rapid global energy transition is not possible even for an immediate and tangible disaster such as a pandemic. Climate change, a challenge that is notoriously difficult to situate in the here and now, has been addressed with far less urgency and this is likely to continue. As with climate change, in the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen national governments such as that in the US fail to heed evidence-based advice put forth by experts to mitigate harm. Again as with climate change, we have seen sub-national governments stepping up to fill gaps left by national leaders, with emergence of consortia of states within the US. While in theory national or international leadership could more swiftly and efficiently tackle what are fundamentally global issues, in practice the burden of communication and coordination the in face of conflicting national incentives and existing political agendas can work against coordinated action.
Fears of harm to the economy caused delays to action in the face of COVID-19, just as with climate change action. With the benefit of hindsight, it is now apparent to many that strong and swift action on COVID-19 at its earliest stage, despite being viewed at the time as too economically harmful, could in fact have lessened effects on the economy. There have been warnings for years, largely ignored, that slow action on climate change will have a similar effect – by delaying earlier investment in measures such as transitioning the energy system away from fossil fuels, in the longer term there will be greater damage done to the economy. This is already starting to become apparent for climate change too, with events such as Australia’s unusually severe 2020 bushfires causing devastating damage out of line with what would be expected had the climate not already begun to change.
A transition of stationary energy sources should have been one of the lowest hanging fruit in mitigating climate change, but as yet the vast majority of the world’s electricity is still generated by fossil fuels, even as installation of new capacity has now tipped to favour renewable generation. As renewable generation technologies such as solar and wind have become cost competitive over time, the transition could be seen as now relying on coordination and optimization. Stable running of the electricity grid requires that demand and supply be near-instantaneously balanced at all times, historically managed by generation plants ramping up and down as needed. With variable sources such as solar and wind, supply of electricity does not always coincide with demand, introducing the need for a mix of storage options, demand side response measures, and complementary generation technologies that are more suitable for ramping.
Expanding grid shares of renewable generation was already an exercise in emergent coordination across many parties. In many countries, different parties have control of building generation, building transmission, and ensuring continuity of supply. Into this landscape, COVID-19 introduces a new suite of uncertainties and balancing acts. With global economic recession, investment in large infrastructure such as utility-scale solar and wind plants may well slow. In Australia, approval to connect generation to transmission grids was already creating a bottleneck in getting renewable generation to consumers pre-COVID-19, dampening investor enthusiasm – with the government’s resources now largely tied up dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, this type of issue may worsen, and attempts to address it may stall. Globally, resources poured into targeting the immediate pandemic may be pulled away from tackling longer term issues such as climate change. The debts incurred to keep the economy moving throughout necessary shutdowns may further weaken the ability of governments worldwide to respond to the aftermath of large-scale natural disasters such as the bushfires, wildfires, and tropical storms that climate change is already worsening.
Yet there are also success stories in the COVID-19 response. Most governments around the world have moved to protect their citizens, and many have responded with sweeping measures that demonstrate their ability to rapidly mobilize resources when they perceive an urgent need. COVID-19 has also generated an enforced trial of a world with vastly reduced car and plane travel. We have learned that many meetings could have been emails, and many in person meetings could have been online. In terms of sharing knowledge across the international community, there is some genuine excitement – when all meetings during COVID-19 are held online already, it is a much simpler matter for a colleague from another country to join a workshop, or for the speaker at a seminar to be thousands of miles away.
This lowering of emissions may be wiped out by rebound in emissions-causing activities following the end of travel and other restrictions, as people rush to return to activities they have missed during the shutdowns. There may be shifts in the pattern of electricity use during COVID-19, too. Usage of electricity has moved from the workplace to the home during the daytime, with unclear long term effects. In many places home heating and cooling may be less efficient than the larger scale systems employed in workplaces, and the new need to keep home dwellings at somewhat comfortable temperatures all day will likely have cost and emissions implications in places like New Zealand and Australia where the residential building stock is largely older homes with poorer insulation and single glazing.
As we begin to look past COVID-19, large infrastructure expenditures may be one way to inject cash back into the economy in the short term and bounce back from recession. This was the strategy used by the US in the New Deal response to the Great Depression, funding public works among a suite of other reforms to stimulate the economy. The energy transition could greatly benefit from this type of investment in infrastructure spending. However, each country will act in accordance with its own interests, which will vary depending on factors including whether the country manufactures renewable energy components, and whether greater renewable generation capacity is perceived to harm other sectors of the economy.
COVID-19 presents a major disruption to business as usual, and could provide the wake up call that the international community needs to focus on long-term planning and addressing fundamental issues such as climate change. The punctuated equilibrium theory of policy advancement suggests that during a window of opportunity caused by this type of disruption, vast changes to business as usual are possible when they normally would not be. Governments worldwide, including in Australia, are already looking ahead to recovery and planning to marshal resources for economic recovery, opening a window for expert engagement putting forth energy transition solutions as part of these packages. A wealth of policy recommendations to accelerate the energy transition and mitigate climate change already exists, waiting for sufficient political will to act at a greater than incremental level. Disruption from COVID-19 may provide the needed push. But we cannot wait to act until there is international, or even national, agreement. COVID-19 has also shown that even in response to a truly immediate and pressing problem, this coordination can fall short. It’s up to each level of government and member of society to act as they’re able to push the energy transition forward even in absence of central coordination.