An intentional energy transition after COVID-19 will generate gains for climate and society

solar field showing solar panels against blue sky - american public power association
The way we rebuild the post-pandemic economy can accelerate the renewable energy transition – if we do it right.
Image: Photo by American Public Power Association on Unsplash
  • The world has made progress on the transition to renewable energy, but the coronavirus pandemic threatens to take us back.
  • A "green stimulus" could accelerate the energy transition and boost the economy.
  • Policy-makers have an opportunity to make an intentional energy transition that both mitigates climate change and improves society.

The year 2020 was to mark the beginning of a “decade of delivery” for the global renewable energy transition. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the wind out of those sails.

This is a watershed moment for the global energy transition.

There has been some progress toward the transition, according to the 2019 Renewables Global Status Report from REN21, a global renewable energy think tank. The majority of new power generation capacity is in the form of renewable energy. More than 160 countries have made renewable energy and energy decarbonization commitments. There has been substantial investment in energy storage, and a substantial increase in private sector support. All of these are essential elements in a successful transition. (The recently released World Economic Forum report, Fostering Effective Energy Transition 2020, illustrates the substantial progress made in the global readiness for such a transition.)

Global growth in renewable energy
We've seen substantial growth in renewable energy. Will COVID-19 take us back?
Image: REN21 Renewables 2019 Global Status Report

Now, governments are reacting to the economic consequences of the pandemic by deploying unprecedented stimulus – but they’re largely overlooking energy and climate issues. For example, in the US, over $2.5 trillion in stimulus has supported businesses, critical healthcare infrastructure, state and local governments, unemployment, food programs and direct payments to individuals. These are issues of critical importance.

But the question is not whether we rebuild, but how we rebuild. Just as the economic stimulus could hasten the recovery of the world’s economies, a green stimulus could leapfrog the world into a green rebuilding in the aftermath of COVID-19.

Jobs in renewable energy
Image: REN21 Renewables 2019 Global Status Report

The World Energy Council (WEC) provides insight on how this reconfiguration could unfold for global energy in the 2019 World Energy Scenarios. The report paints different pictures of global energy in the year 2040, through the use of three speculative scenarios using musical styles as metaphors for the dynamics that drive them.

Two of these scenarios, “Unfinished Symphony” and “Hard Rock,” are particularly salient to weighing policy choices in the aftermath of the pandemic. In the third scenario, “Modern Jazz,” economic growth continues unabated and a market-driven dynamic gradually leads to progress in altering the global energy mix away from fossil fuels – a scenario that, at least for the moment, seems impossible due to the pandemic leading to declining economic growth and sharply lower fossil fuel prices.

In the “Hard Rock” scenario, the global economy is rocked by economic disruption and global GDP decreases. While the carbon emissions during times of regular global economic activity would decline as a result, the energy transition is paralyzed as investment in the necessary innovation and infrastructure is lost to economic water-treading. Furthermore, fracturing international coalitions around environmental progress, such as the Paris Agreement, erode political momentum.

The key driving force in the “Unfinished Symphony” scenario is that large public investments lay the foundations of the energy transition. For instance, technological innovation in clean energy, coupled with investments in energy storage and advanced grid technologies, leads to a virtuous cycle of affordable decarbonization and the increase in economy-wide buy-in. This scenario makes the most progress toward transition of all three WEC scenarios.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

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The economic intervention needed to rebuild in the aftermath of the pandemic can either accelerate the energy transition – or make us miss the “decade of delivery” entirely. Drawing on the recommendations from Fostering Effective Energy Transition 2020, it’s clear that public support for energy innovation, new energy infrastructure and regulatory support are needed to rebuild with the energy transition in mind. To regain the progress made toward the energy transition and escape the “Hard Rock” scenario, policymakers should invest in research and development, expanding human capital and modernizing energy infrastructure. These investments will pay dividends in terms of both economic and environmental gains.

The pandemic has also brought attention to the coupling of our economic, societal and environmental systems – highlighting the fact that the energy transition isn’t just about the energy mix. Global energy is more than just choices about economics and environmental issues. It is about society – who is empowered, global flows of capital, geopolitics and more.

This energy transition will be the first of its kind: an intentional transition. Because of this, we should ask more from our transition than just mitigating climate change. We should design the transition for the kinds of social outcomes we want, too.

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