Green energy funding delays to offset COVID-19 environmental gains: Study

Consequences for human health from potential delays in clean energy investments can far outweigh short-term benefits

By DTE Staff
Published: Wednesday 24 June 2020

Delayed investments in renewable energy projects can offset environmental gains during the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, according to a recent study.

The global crisis, caused because of lockdowns in several parts of the world, will defer clean energy investments, said Kenneth Gillingham, the lead author of the study published in journal Joule on June 19, 2020.

The shortage of investments could lead to an additional 2,500 million tonnes of carbon dioxide — equal to three trillion pounds of burned coal — being released into the atmosphere, according to the worst-case scenario predicted by the study.

This scenario predicts 40 lives being lost every month, through 2035, the study — led by Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (F&ES) and co-authored by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and Northwestern University in the United States — pointed out.

The consequences for human health from potential delays in clean energy investments can far outweigh short-term benefits brought about by the lockdowns, said Gillingham, associate professor of environmental and energy economics at Yale F&ES.

Short-term benefits have, however, been substantial: Jet fuel and gasoline saw declines of 50 per cent and 30 per cent respectively, from March till June 7, according to the study. The demand for electricity fell by 10 per cent as well.

These benefits have saved 200 lives every month since the lockdown began.

The downside, however, was felt in the clean energy sector: Clean energy jobs plummeted by almost 600,000 since April, according to Marten Ovaere, a postdoctoral researcher at F&ES and co-author of the paper.

If investment in low-carbon technologies under the energy innovation sector dry up, current transitions to cleaner vehicle fleets will be hit, with cash-strapped automakers abandoning new vehicle and energy efficiency technologies, the study pointed out.

State and local budgets in the next few years would also be restricted, reducing more investment options.

If clean energy investments stall for just one year, the impact from this could outweigh any emission reductions occurring from March to June, according to the study.

Modest investments in this sector could, however, help. They could come in the form of allocations in economic stimulus packages, according to Gilligham.

The study also chalked out a best-case scenario. In it, the threat from economic shocks subside quickly, with the economy rebounding and overcoming the worst projections of human fatalities.

In this case, there will be few long-term implications, with demand for goods and services predicted to be deferred rather than destroyed. Investments in clean energy would then likely reach pre-pandemic levels and emissions declines would be temporary.

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