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Pandemic-related carbon reduction could be offset by faltering economies

The environmental benefits and carbon reduction that occurred during the Covid-19 crisis could be “far outweighed” by its negative impact on the building of clean energy infrastructure, a study has claimed.

A number of short terms benefits have been made over the last few months, including a drastic reduction in air pollution and a possible seven per cent reduction in global carbon emissions this year.

But Yale researchers have said that the economic downturn triggered by the pandemic could have a devastating impact on long-term investment in clean energy. Under a worst-case scenario, they predict an additional 2,500 million metric tons of carbon dioxide could be emitted (causing 40 excess deaths per month) through 2035.

“This global crisis will certainly defer investments in clean energy,” said lead author of the paper, Professor Kenneth Gillingham. “Depending on how policymakers respond, the consequences for human health from this deferred investment could far exceed the short-term environmental benefits that we have seen so far.”

Campaigners have already been calling for a “green” economic recovery from the virus, with investments in clean energy and energy efficiency touted as ways to boost recovery of flailing economies.

From March to June, consumption for jet fuel and petrol declined by 50 and 30 per cent respectively, while electricity demand fell by 10 percent. These impacts saved an estimated 200 lives per month since the lockdowns began.

However, there’s also been another, subtler outcome: most investment in clean energy technologies has come to a halt.

“Overall clean energy jobs dropped by almost 600,000 by the end of April, as investments in energy efficiency and renewable generation have plummeted,” said co-author Dr Marten Ovaere. “If that were to continue it could significantly set back the push toward a clean energy future.”

Drawing on evidence from previous economic shocks, they found that in a best-case scenario investment in new energy solutions would likely reach pre-pandemic levels relatively quickly.

But they said that if there is a persistent, long-term recession, the impacts on energy innovation would be significant.

“For example, there has been a huge amount of investment going into electric vehicles,” Gillingham says. “But if companies are just trying to survive, it’s much less likely that they can make large investments towards new technologies for the next generation because they don’t even know if they’re going to make it to the next generation.”

In addition, tighter state and local budgets over the next few years will likely deflate much of the investment in clean-energy options. Even if green energy investments stall for just a single year, the authors calculate, it would outweigh any emissions reductions that occurred from March to June.

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