In his monthly analysis of sustainability data, Oliver Balch looks at the appetite for climate action around the world, indicators that renewable energy will buck the downturn, and the latest efforts to chart net-zero commitments
The world has changed immensely in recent months, but so, it would seem, have we as individuals. Most significant is the shift in our thinking on environmental threats, particularly climate change. In a global survey of 29 countries, pollster Ipsos MORI finds that seven out of 10 (71%) of those polled agree that long-term climate change is “as serious” as the Covid-19 pandemic. The figures peak in China, where nearly 87% agreed with the statement, while Australia and the US bottom out the list (albeit with a creditable 59%).
The survey also finds substantial support for the idea of linking economic recovery packages to pro-climate conditions. On average, 65% of the over 20,000 adults surveyed expressed support for “green” recovery plans. That said, the discrepancy between transition economies, such as India (81%) and Mexico (80%), and developed economies, such as the UK (58%), the US (57%) and Germany (57%), is notable. Equally notable is the (un)willingness of people to act on their new-found concerns. According to the survey findings, only half of those polled say they are now more willing to save energy at home (50%) or recycle (49%). The percentage drops when it comes to the likelihood of reducing or eliminating air travel (41%) or eating less meat (41%). Even so, figures from Google substantiate the shift in sentiment. In the three months to April 22, searches (in English) for the phrase "how to live a sustainable lifestyle" increased by 4,550%.
In the UK specifically, anticipation of macro-change is high. Seven in 10 (69%) of Brits anticipate the country looking different from today in 12 months’ time, one fifth of whom expect “a great deal of change”. According to a separate Ipsos MORI poll, young people (18-34) are especially prone to find themselves in the change camp (79%). But what shape will such changes take? Six in 10 UK adults believe that the country should prioritise social and environmental issues above economic growth, a new poll by YouGov reveals. Around one third (31%) hold the opposite opinion, according to the survey, which was commissioned by campaign group Positive Money. (Note: the survey coincided with the launch of a parallel report, The Tragedy of Growth, in which PositiveMoney argues for official GDP figures to be replaced by “dashboards” of alternative indictors, including life expectancy, carbon emissions, and education).
Public opinion in the US is undergoing a similar shift. According to a poll by market research firm OnePulse at the behest of communications consultancy Futerra, more than three-quarters of US adults (77%) say that their concerns about climate change would prompt them to make lifestyle changes akin to those during the Covid pandemic. The proportion jumps to 82% for people aged 21-24. When asked what specific actions they might be willing to take, the most popular response was to “waste less” (59%), followed by avoiding plastic (45%) and switching to green energy (43%). Interestingly, more than half (55%) of those willing to adopt a climate-positive behaviour felt it would improve their own lives, with an additional one third or so (35%) saying it would make little difference.
Nor is it just public opinion that appears to be shifting. A recent survey of 231 central bankers, G20 finance ministers and leading academics for Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment found high support for economic “booster” measures that help reduce emissions, such as investment in clean energy infrastructure and public spending on research and development of low-carbon solutions. Even so, the study suggests that 92% of fiscal rescue measures announced by G20 countries in April would maintain the status quo, with the remainder split evenly between positive and negative impacts on greenhouse gas emissions.
Renewables: cautious optimism
WITH MANY factories closed and offices shut, the Covid pandemic has resulted in a dramatic drop in power demand. India clocked a 14.3% reduction in electricity generation in May, for example, while power demand in Europe is down by 8.1% this year. As the global economy begins slowly to build back from the pandemic, the future role of renewables in the energy mix remains the subject of some debate.
It would be easy to adopt a glass-half-empty perspective given the “historic” 6% drop in demand for energy expected in 2020 by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Overall investment in the power sector is also projected to drop by $80bn this year, the influential energy body predicts in its most recent flagship World Energy Investment report. While fossil-fuel power generators will be hardest hit (with year on year investments down by 15% and many proposed coal-fired power stations already shelved), renewable power providers are by no means out of the woods. The IEA expects a fall in investment of 10% in 2020 for wind, solar PV and other clean energy technologies, causing the renewable energy sector to slow for the first time in 20 years.
Looked at through a half-full glass, however, and a different picture emerges. As analyst service BloombergNEF notes, solar PV and onshore wind are now the cheapest sources of new-build generation for at least two-thirds of the global population (who collectively comprise 71% of the world’s and 85% of energy generation). And, while the Covid-19 shock is temporarily pushing back timelines for many utility-scale solar and wind projects, the majority of pre-existing investments in projects with longer lead times are continuing.
According to the IEA, new offshore wind and hydropower projects are proving especially resilient. Another major positive is the inclusion of clean energy in many national recovery plans. Malaysia recently opened a 1 gigawatt (GW) solar bidding process under its Covid-19 stimulus package, for instance. Likewise, the European Commission is aiming to give renewables an investment boost as part of its proposed €750bn green recovery plan. In the UK, meanwhile, there are still plans for a 2021 auction (the first since 2015) for onshore wind projects. As for offshore wind, the UK could attract up to £54bn in private investment should the right policies be in place, according to new modelling by industry body RenewablesUK. This would quadruple current capacity to 40GW by 2030.
Meantime, emissions have continued to fall in recent months, and not just due to widespread lockdown measures. In Portugal, for example, 77% of all power came from zero-emission sources in March and April, up 14.5% on the previous year. The UK also recorded a record peak share of 67.47% for renewables on May 25 (a bank holiday). In the US, meanwhile, renewables outstripped coal in the power mix for a 40-day record run, from late March to early May. New figures from the European Environment Agency show emissions also declined in 2018, falling 2.1% compared with 2017 and 23% lower than in 1990.
Net-Zero: charting progress
WITH NO SILVER bullet for achieving a net-zero energy system for 2050, a systematic approach is needed to compare different energy transition scenarios, according to the European Commission. In a new 71-page analysis, researchers at the Commission’s Joint Research Centre consider various pathways that might achieve a 50% carbon reduction by 2030 and net zero by 2050, aiming to identify similarities, and where they diverge.
By 2030 there will need to be an overall reduction in final energy consumption (between 30-60% compared with the present), a massive increase in renewables (to 65-100% of total energy supply), and the widespread adoption of hydrogen, biofuels and e-fuels in transport. An increase of 100% in natural carbon sinks is also ideally envisaged. Existing trends that bode well, meanwhile, include the adoption of electric vehicles (required to hit between 60-90% of all car sales by 2050), and the increased use of heat pumps in buildings.
Environmental charity WWF has also weighed into the debate about the best course to a net-zero future for the UK. Research by strategy consultancy Vivid Economics, Keeping us Competitive calculates that a net-zero trajectory will cost an addition £30bn per year throughout the 2020s, roughly equivalent to 1% of GDP. This £300bn investment (combined between public and private sources) could unlock business opportunities in the region of £50bn per year, the report suggests. Meeting new-found export demand for offshore wind goods and services presents a prime case in point. The authors also anticipated over £80bn in annual co-benefits, such as health improvements from more active travel improved air quality. Were its measures to be taken up, WWF predicts 210,000 new jobs in the low-carbon economy, over a third of which (85,000) would occur in the green building sector. Around half the annual cost of its proposed investments – ie £20bn – could be derived from sector-specific taxes and levies, as well as a general economy-wide carbon price of over £40 per tonne of carbon dioxide, the report maintains.
On hand to test out WWF’s proposal (and similar blueprints) is a new cross-sector initiative run by the Carbon Trust and Imperial College to model the costs of providing a low-carbon energy system across the heat, transport and power sectors. The Flexibility in Great Britain project builds on previous work that suggests the cost of transition could be reduced by up to £40bn with greater flexibility and the implementation of storage technologies. It will report its findings in early 2021.
Meanwhile, a team at American University in Washington DC has developed a tool to keep tabs on the plethora of net-zero commitments now being made by private companies. The Action Tracker focuses on corporations operating in aviation, energy, heavy industry, and other harder-to-abate sectors. The work complements separate efforts to keep track of net-zero progress at specific industry levels. A recent study by the UK manufacturers association, Make UK, finds that 90% of its 20,000 or so members are aware of the 2050 net-zero target and nearly half have an initial roadmap in place to achieve this goal.
The study, which is based on data from before the Covid-19 pandemic, finds that 30% of UK manufacturers had made “real inroads” into energy efficiency investments over the last 12 months, with building improvements and manufacturing processes marking particular highlights. It also notes that 40% of respondents had renegotiated their energy contracts with a view to improving efficiency and reducing cost.
Research carried out by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change on behalf of the London-based Transition Pathway Initiative finds that despite “significant progress” over the last six months, the world’s largest mining companies will need to go “significantly further” to meet investor expectations from net-zero initiatives such as Climate Action 100+. The research concludes than only two of the largest 10 companies – Freeport and Grupo Mexico – are on track to meet targets set under the landmark Paris Climate Agreement. Collectively, the companies directly and indirectly emit over 1.5bn tonnes annual of carbon dioxide every year. Finally, a study into refrigeration, chilling, and air-conditioning sectors by the London-based non-profit CDP finds that only four of the largest 18 companies have targets to reduce emissions throughout the value chain by 2050. The cooling industry is currently valued at around $300bn.