Many countries are now reopening after a major part of the world has been put on lockdown to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. A number of economic activities have been put on hold, people have almost stopped flying for three months and there have been many reports of localized air quality improvements. Carbon emissions are expected to drop by 8 percent according to the International Energy Agency (IEA); however, this should barely have any effect on the climate crisis. The reason is only the transformation of industry and technology can really address needed structural issues causing climate change, writes Taavi Madiberk, CEO of Estonian tech firm Skeleton Technologies.
Lockdowns are set to cause largest ever annual fall in CO2 emissions. In the past, no war, recession, or previous pandemic has had such a dramatic impact on emissions of CO2 over the past century as COVID-19 has in a few short months. Is it a sign that putting the economy on hold, cutting back on travel and telling people to stay at home are the keys to a more sustainable future? This would be too simple.
Lockdowns are not the solution for climate change
First, according to estimates from the IEA, carbon emissions may drop by 8 percent this year, meaning they should fall by around 2.6 billion tons in warming gases, with declining coal use the most significant factor. This is historic, but not an awful lot in the grand scheme of things. The annual average CO2 concentrations will still increase through this year.
Despite all the "nature is healing" commentary, global CO2 emissions have not considerably declined during the pandemic, at least not to the extent of dramatically change the curse of climate change in the longer term. In reality, if COVID-19 leads to a drop in emissions of 8 percent in 2020, then that is the sort of reduction we need every year this decade in order to limit warming to less than 1.5C above pre-industrial temperatures. I guess 10 years of lockdowns are not a viable option for anyone.
This does not mean that the pandemic has no positive effect on the environment. For instance, given that the amount of traffic has more than halved from its level prior to the crisis, fewer fossil fuels are being burned and air pollution levels in many places have decreased (for some pollutants, there has been a more than 20 percent decrease in Europe). With less air pollution being documented due to the COVID-19 lockdown, more people are realizing the benefits of moving away from carbon, petrol and diesel cars.
Air and water pollution are important topics, so we can be cheerful and enjoy breathing cleaner air. This is a taste of the future we could achieve if emissions targets were reached. Nevertheless, without concerted, strong and global policy action, carbon emissions are likely to bounce back to their pre-COVID19 trajectory.
The changes needed are too important to happen purely due to individual choices
If stopping most travel and transport is not enough to slow down climate change, what will be? Emissions levels relate less to individual behavior than larger structural factors. It is useful to try to reduce one's own personal footprint, ride a bicycle, use public transportation and take the train instead of flying – and all of this should be further supported – but the impact is not as important as we may expect. Individual behavior alone will not mitigate the climate crisis.
According to the IEA, electricity and heating combined account for over 40 percent of global emissions. Transportation makes up a little over 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions (and according to Venson Automotive Solutions, driving petrol and diesel-fueled vehicles contribute 72 percent of the transport sector's greenhouse gas emissions). Industry and manufacturing also account for approximately 20 percent. So, if we really want to address the climate crisis, we need to aim for structural changes in these sectors.
The role of tech and industrial transformation
We should not downplay the role of technology and innovation, particularly in the field of energy, but also in the field of energy savings, in opening up opportunities for us to achieve our goals.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggest some technological breakthroughs which could be game-changing, such as bioenergy with CO2 capture and storage - which is extremely promising, but with today's technologies we can already make great progress in the fight against climate crisis.
Already technological advances are making clean energy sources such as solar and wind more efficient and cheaper, leading to steady growth in their deployment. Ongoing research and development are leading to continuous gains in how much power they produce. Wind operators are using artificial intelligence and improved weather forecasts to position their turbines for better performance, while solar-panel manufacturers are refining the use of new materials and processes to generate more electricity from smaller panels and drive down costs. To solve the issue of their "intermittency"—the times when the sun doesn't shine and the wind does not blow – energy storage solutions exist.
In the past, clean technologies have taken between 19 and 30 years to achieve widespread use, say researchers at the UK think tank Chatham House and patent-search firm CambridgeIP. We need to make significant investments to accelerate the deployment of existing technologies and the research on future ones.
Industries must be part of the effort, and they must transform themselves, prioritizing cleantech and energy efficiency immediately. Inefficient systems and infrastructure – incomplete electrical grids, ageing combustion engines, or badly insulated buildings – are depleting our resources. We must invest in systems and technologies which are energy-efficient, resource-efficient and waste-efficient.
The widespread adoption of energy efficiency measures could reduce industrial energy use by over 25 percent. This potential is a significant reduction of 8 percent in the global energy use and 12.4 percent reduction in global CO2 emissions. It would therefore be good for the environment, but it would also save a lot of money for companies.
Electric cars and trucks — which are already in use on the road — may also prove the key to eliminating oil use in transportation. Technologies allowing them to scale up must be supported, while ensuring that electrification is done through decarbonization. The COVID-19 crisis is a transient situation, but the shift to electrification is baked into the future strategy of the European industry and no-one wants to get left behind.
Overall, there is no silver bullet to protect the climate and "fix" the climate crisis. But technology can get us closer to our climate targets, and the good news is that we will not need to put our economies on hold to achieve them.
Taavi Madiberk is CEO of Skeleton, headquartered in Tallinn, which manufactures ultracapacitors. Its manufacturing facilities are located in Germany.
Editor: Andrew Whyte