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Has The Pandemic Accelerated Europe’s Green Energy Transition?

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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to hammer communities around the world, energy researchers in Europe have been looking at another development caused by the outbreak: a drop in carbon emissions and an acceleration of the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable electricity.

Parallel to the human and economic costs of the virus, which has now killed almost three million people, reduced energy demand over the past year caused a 7% drop in emissions across Europe’s 10 richest nations, or 36.7 million fewer tons of CO2. That’s roughly equivalent to shutting down the entire global aviation industry for two weeks. The figures offer hope that the EU could achieve its goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The findings were released today by Finnish energy firm Wärtsilä, along with a scorecard that ranks countries according to CO2 reductions. The list shows Austria cut emissions the most in percentage terms, reducing national CO2 output by 29%, helped by the closure of the country’s last coal-fired power plant in April 2020.

But in terms of sheer tons of carbon reduced, Spain and the Netherlands made the biggest cuts, each lowering emissions by 10.2 million tons of CO2 over the course of a year. Spain achieved this by closing no less than seven coal-fired power plants, while the Netherlands imported a larger proportion of low and zero carbon electricity from neighbors such as Germany.

Tony Meski, senior market development analyst at Wärtsilä Energy Business, noted the problem of highlighting ostensibly positive findings that have come out of a global catastrophe.

“The impact of Covid is like achieving a gold medal while spraining both ankles in the process,” Meski said. “We’ve achieved record-breaking carbon reductions, but our global economy has been put under intense strain.”

“One year since lockdowns began, we must now focus on a strategic, scientific and intelligent approach to cutting carbon emissions that enables us to achieve Paris Agreement [goals] while actually benefitting our economy and improving our quality of life,” he added.

Nevertheless, Meski said, as the pandemic recedes, energy demand could be expected to rise once more.

“Energy demand will rebound, and emissions with it,” he said. “We need to capture this moment and be ambitious with our investments in renewables and flexible technologies while they remain highly competitive.”

There is evidence, however, to suggest that at least some of the European emissions reductions achieved during the pandemic could be permanent, largely due to reduced reliance on coal. A study from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, published in February by the journal Nature, showed that coal plants are the first sources of electricity generation to be switched off during a reduction in electricity demand.

“This is because the process of burning fuels constantly runs up costs,” said Potsdam Institute senior scientist and lead author Christoph Bertram. “The plant operators have to pay for each single ton of coal. In contrast, renewable power sources such as wind and solar plants, once built, have significantly lower running costs—and keep on operating even if the demand is reduced.”

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The Potsdam Institute study forecast that “Power sector emissions in 2021 will likely increase compared with 2020 but remain below 2019 values, given continuing additions of low-carbon generation.”

Nonetheless, on a broader scale the energy transition globally has so far failed to reverse the long-term trend of increasing emissions. As U.K. think tank Ember revealed in a report last month, while renewables such as wind and solar power are being deployed more rapidly than ever, they’re not able to keep pace with the growing demand for electricity worldwide, and a great deal of coal-fired generation is being replaced with gas—another fossil fuel. Only about a third of global electricity generation comes from low or zero carbon sources. As for energy more broadly, fossil fuels deliver an even greater share—around 84%—of the energy we use.

The energy transition, then, is fully under way. But to reach net-zero emissions, world leaders will need to need to move a lot faster.

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