Time to press the reset button on energy

However bad a situation might be, people will often look for the positives.

The lack of traffic on our roads and in our skies due to the COVID-19 lockdown has lead to two things occurring: one; noise pollution has fallen significantly and two; many cities around the world have witnessed a fall in air pollution.

In April, news outlets reported that aquatic life was visible in the previously choked canals of Venice once more, blue skies were visible over Delhi and Indonesian skylines had changed dramatically.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, it seemed impossible to believe that the world could achieve the ambition announced at the COP21 meeting in Paris in 2015 to limit greenhouse gas emissions and hold planetary warming below 2ºC of pre-industrial levels.

However, it was reported that daily global emissions of greenhouse gases had fallen 17% by early April compared to 2019 levels, while in the UK they had fallen by almost a third. Emissions from aviation fell by approximately 60% as international and domestic flights were grounded. Surface transport experienced a 36% drop while power generation and industry made up a whopping 86% of the total decline.

A cut to carbon emissions from transport and industry alone will not solve the problem, and there were still 83% of global emissions remaining in April, highlighting the sheer scale of the issue. However, it’s clear that lockdown has put the brakes on pollution - if only to a degree.

In terms of energy provision, we are now at a crossroads. Global lockdown has given the world a unique, once in forever chance to stop, think and plan from this point on for the environment we want our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren to inherit.

While on the one hand, despite having taken away so much, the pandemic has given us a previously unimagined opportunity to reset the energy button.

Let’s be fair: fossil fuels have been the bedrock of our existing lifestyles and will continue to be important for the foreseeable future. We all know and accept that. But at this time, as we scramble to make sense of our new daily routines, we have an opportunity to really advance the energy transition with reductions on greenhouse gases and a greater emphasis on renewable energy sources.

We’ve already seen it happening. Norwegian operator Equinor, BP, Shell, Total and Italy’s Eni announced their commitment to net zero emissions strategies at the beginning of this year before COVID-19 caught hold globally. More recently, the leaders of Shell and BP have questioned what the demand for oil will look like in the post COVID-19 world.

In the past few days, Eni has announced a decision to split its business into two: one covering oil and the other for renewables. Elsewhere, Siemens is continuing its commitment to spin off its power and gas business and merge it with wind turbine maker Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has described the current hiatus as an “excellent opportunity” to advance the energy transition and has called on governments to build large scale spending on clean energy technologies into their plans to stimulate national economies.

IEA executive director Fatih Birol is reported to have said in March: “The coronavirus crisis is already doing significant damage around the world. Rather than compounding the tragedy by allowing it to hinder clean energy transitions, we need to seize the opportunity to help accelerate them.”

But will we do that? With an abundance of cheap oil in the world right now, will we be encouraged by governments to grasp for this traditional quick and trusted solution to our short-term economic problems as we emerge from lockdown? Or will our legislators have the foresight to steer us towards the longer-term environmental gain of more sustainable energy adoption through incentives such as support for electric vehicle manufacture and purchase, or improved vehicle charging infrastructure?

There has never been, nor will there ever be, a better time to reset the energy button and take a new course.