Pandemic’s Transformative Impact on Clean Energy: That’s Up for Debate

While some energy experts are uncertain about the long-term environmental effects, ‘we should be investing in the technologies of tomorrow,’ they say
Credit: (AP Photo/Michael Probst, File)
A Duke University energy expert suggests that the volatility of the oil market may lead investors to focus more on renewable energy.

Oil prices have declined by nearly one half. Global warming emissions have fallen by 11%. Global energy demand is expected to drop by 6% this year, according to the International Energy Agency.

In a post-pandemic world, are these trends a glimpse of a globe transformed by perhaps the worst public health emergency in the past 100 years? Will it spur lawmakers and policy experts to use the crisis to steer toward more environmentally friendly policies? Or will efforts to ramp up a quick economic recovery lead to new erosion of environmental rules?

A trio of Duke University energy scholars debated those issues yesterday during a webinar on the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on energy and the environment, which one expert called the “largest demand destruction ever seen — a 30 percent reduction in the daily consumption of oil.’’

Whether that will lead to a transformation to a clean-energy future — like New Jersey, and many of the Northeast states envision — is uncertain, the scholars said.

“Will this accelerate the adoption of renewables?’’ asked Brian Murray, director of the Duke University Energy Initiative, who noted the huge drop in demand for oil. “What’s favorable for renewables in this environment is that investment capital is looking for more steady returns. The volatility of the commodity markets is really spooking them and renewable energy is a good alternative.’’

The downside is natural gas still is really cheap, Murray said.

Will transportation trends continue?

Kate Konschnik, director of the Climate & Energy Program at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, expressed uncertainty about whether trends diverting from normal transportation and energy patterns will continue.

“If you ask a lot of Americans, and tell them we’ve dropped our carbon dioxide emissions 11 percent over the last year, they’ll say, ‘I’m trapped in my house and I’m unemployed, so if this is what it takes to tackle climate change, no thank you,’’’ she said. “That is a real risk going forward.’’

However, Drew Shindell, a professor of earth science at the university, sees real opportunities to move toward a clean-energy economy.

“What we’re seeing with this pandemic is people can really see the air around them cleaner,’’ said Shindell, who says he sees the difference as he runs around Durham, N.C.

“They’re seeing that when we make a change, we can have an immediate impact on the environment — a profound impact,’’ Shindell said. “Obviously, we don’t want to deal with climate change by locking everyone up at home. But the public will to live in a clean environment is enhanced because they’re seeing what can happen when we get rid of pollution.’’

Clean-energy investments, job growth

In some instances, that is already happening in Europe and in states in the U.S. with aggressive goals to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, he said. He mentioned efforts to electrify the transportation sector — the largest single source of greenhouse-gas emissions — as well as a strategy to address climate change and promoting clean-energy jobs for the millions left unemployed by the pandemic.

Konschnik agreed, urging more investment in clean transportation and clean-energy infrastructure. “If we’re going to be infusing a lot of capital into the economy to get it started again, we should be investing in the technologies of tomorrow, the technologies that are good for the environment and good for the economy,’’ she said.

Murray argued it is time for the nation to consider placing a price on carbon, saying it could help provide the funds to help the economy recover once the pandemic is over.