Recession likely to hinder rebounding emissions levels

Recession likely to hinder rebounding emissions levels
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The recession caused by the coronavirus could have a bigger impact on emissions than the earlier stay-at-home orders tied to the pandemic, experts say.

Researchers found that emissions dropped by as much as 17 percent worldwide at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak as travel plans and daily commutes to work and school came to a halt.

But experts say that decline is likely to rebound to pre-coronavirus levels, unless a protracted recession takes hold.

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“The economy is dependent on energy,” said Steve Davis, a professor at the University of California, Irvine. “If you’re making stuff, you need heat and electricity to make that stuff. Then you need oil to deliver that stuff. So when the economy slows down, you get less consumption demand as people do less and make less.”

Research has found that emissions dip when there’s an economic downturn, whether it's the oil crisis of the late 1970s or the financial crisis surrounding the Great Recession.

That recession, from 2007 to 2009, led to a 10 percent drop in U.S. emissions, according to research by Davis and others.

Emissions typically rebound alongside the economy, but a lengthy recovery accompanied by potential changes in consumer behavior could keep emissions lower for a longer period.

“Emissions were down one-sixth, and now they’re only down one-twentieth globally,” said Rob Jackson, an environmental scientist at Stanford University and head of the Global Carbon Project, as emissions levels tick back up in China, the U.S. and elsewhere.

“Now we’re moving quickly back to close to normal. But if close to normal lasts a long time, we could see a sustained drop in emissions that's meaningful.”

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The length of the virus’s presence and the sheer toll on the global economy mean the recovery could take years -- not an ideal way to slow emissions, experts emphasized.

The combination of a faltering U.S. economy, with 13.3 percent unemployment, and fear of the coronavirus could keep tens of millions of people from resuming their typical driving and consumption habits.

“What's interesting and what we don't know is how this recession is different from previous recessions,” said Klaus Hubacek, an environmental economist affiliated with the University of Maryland.

“It’s going to be a much deeper recession; it's going to be larger and there might be structural changes that are difficult to predict.”

The success of teleworking has prompted some companies to embrace the practice, encouraging employees to continue working remotely if it suits them. And the proliferation of online meeting software gives companies the option of reconsidering travel for short meetings.

At the same time people may increasingly turn to their cars as their preferred mode of transportation, spurning public transit and carpooling in an effort to keep their distance from others.

“It’s not just about stay-at-home orders but the lack of comfort people have to integrate into societies,” said Robert Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard University.

Researchers say they’re not yet sure what the overall effect on emissions will be as people change their habits.

“I don't know where transportation will end up,” Jackson said. “This recession is different in that most of the emissions decrease came from transportation. We stayed at home in this recession in ways we didn't in the past.”

“People are not going to jump back on airplanes anywhere near what we used to in the past any time soon,” he said, while noting that it’s too to say whether an increase in car use might offset that.

It’s also tough to sort out how the recession will affect the energy industry.

Oil companies have made major cuts in response to lower fuel prices, while the renewable energy industry has lost more than 600,000 jobs.

“Fossil fuels are getting hit harder than renewables. They’re both getting hit, but fossil fuels are getting hit harder,” said Glen Peters, research director at the Center for International Climate Research.

“If a few more fossil fuel companies fall off the cliff while renewable companies don’t,” the clean energy sector could be in a stronger position going forward, he said.

Many environmental economists and green activists have been pushing for investments in clean energy as a way to both reduce emissions and spur economic growth.

The European Union is pushing a so-called Green Deal that would transition Europe to a net-zero economy by 2050. The plan predated the virus, but the idea, which is expected to cost at least $1.12 trillion, has taken on new significance as leaders weigh methods to inject money into the economy.

Discussions in the U.S. have been far less concrete, as Democrats push for measures to assist renewables, while efforts to aid the struggling fossil fuel industry have largely come from the right.

The International Energy Agency is calling on countries to invest $1 trillion globally over three years in renewables, modernizing the electric grid and retrofitting buildings to improve energy efficiency.

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“Governments have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reboot their economies and bring a wave of new employment opportunities while accelerating the shift to a more resilient and cleaner energy future,” Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director, said in a statement.

But even those supportive of such investments say addressing the underlying public health issues that caused the economic collapse is the biggest key to fixing the economy.

“In order for the economy to truly recover, it will be necessary that we get beyond the pandemic,” Stavins said.

“That requires one of two things: herd immunity or a vaccine.”