Measures to contain the global pandemic have caused our global carbon emissions to plummet, and some think this unprecedented event might actually help us to tackle climate change. But new research has put a more realistic spin on this rosy outlook by looking at the development of clean energy alternatives.
For now, people around the world might be breathing cleaner air, but new research focused on the United States suggests that won't come close to outweighing the fatality of this virus. In all likelihood, the environmental benefits of the global health crisis will be short lived.
If the threat of the current pandemic can be mediated relatively quickly, the US economy will no doubt rebound and there will be few long-term consequences, the authors argue. We'll just go right back to burning fossil fuels again.
But if the viral threat continues unabated, even if just for a single year, it will cause a persistent global recession, which could further undermine investments in clean technology. Not only will this set back our green energy future, researchers say it will outweigh any emissions reductions we've seen so far.
Already, most investment in clean energy technology has come to a halt, and it's only been a few months. Global electric vehicle sales are projected to decline by nearly 50 percent this year, and new rooftop solar and storage installations have also plummeted.
"Overall clean energy jobs dropped by almost 600,000 by the end of April, as investments in energy efficiency and renewable generation have plummeted," says Marten Ovaere, who researches energy economics at Yale University.
"If that were to continue it could significantly set back the push toward a clean energy future."
Using previous economic shocks as examples for their 'thought experiments', the authors roughly bind the best and worst outcomes for the future under this current pandemic.
While the study is focused specifically on the US, the team says their findings can apply to much of the developed world. And even though these are hardly foolproof predictions, they might help prepare us for what's to come.
Unfortunately, even in the best-case scenario, where we put an end to this pandemic relatively quickly, there appear to be few long-term benefits. We'd simply go back to living the way we used to, making up for the lost time in no time at all.
"Thus, COVID-19 would be a relatively short-lived shock to the world economy," the authors conclude.
"Most demand for products and services will be deferred rather than destroyed, so when the entire economy is safely reopened, there will be a massive rebound in economic activity, likely even surpassing the activity prior to the outbreak."
The second scenario, they say, is more likely, although it is much worse for the world. If it takes much longer for the pandemic to subside, the impacts on energy innovation could be significant.
In this scenario, COVID-19 is much more widespread, deadly and persistent, causing a much longer global recession.
In this case, even when we go back to normal, some people might be too afraid to use public transport, and those who continue working from home will simply use more energy there.
Plus, as investments for low-carbon technologies dry up, both in the private and public sector, the transition to new energy technologies will become far less compelling for cash-strapped industries.
"For example, there has been a huge amount of investment going into electric vehicles," says environmental economist Kenneth Gillingham from Yale University.
"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."
To explore how this would impact long-term emissions, the team performed an illustrative modelling exercise.
In the next 15 years, the authors predict this worst-case scenario will result in a further 2,500 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, which is nearly 3 trillion pounds of coal burned. That would cause 40 more deaths per month, or 7,500 deaths from 2020 to 2035.
"However," the authors note, "the energy policy response to COVID-19 is the wild card that can change everything."
Even if the world is destined for a worst-case scenario, they say, our emission increases are not set in stone.
Governments that can afford stimulus packages have an opportunity right now to invest in clean energy and public transport, while refusing to compromise on our climate goals.
"Depending on how policymakers respond," says Gillingham, "the consequences for human health from this deferred investment could far exceed the short-term environmental benefits that we have seen so far."
The study was published in Joule.