Amidst the widespread devastation brought about by COVID-19, we have seen a sharp drop in carbon emissions across some of the world’s largest economies. New figures released show that this April, the amount of CO2 emitted globally each day fell by 17% compared to the daily average of 2019. This brings us more or less in line with 2006 levels - a potent reminder of just how much greenhouse gas emissions have increased over the past 14 years.
While this temporary breather for the planet has come at a great social and economic cost, it has also given us a helpful glimpse of what a green future could look like. For many people, before lockdown the climate emergency debate only existed in the abstract – a conversation confined to news headlines, David Attenborough documentaries and responsible big businesses who worried about the future. However, COVID-19 has laid bare the reality of the crisis we are in and just how much a shift in societal behaviour can change that. For the first time in years, more people around the world have been able to enjoy the lilt of birdsong and the reduction of toxic pollution in their cities.
But as businesses continue to reopen, factories return to normal levels of production and cars return to the roads in their billions, experts warn that emissions will rebound, undoing any progress made over the past few months.
So, where do we go from here in the quest for net zero future?
Looking past COVID-19 towards a net zero future
As countries look to reopen their economies post-lockdown, it is essential that renewable energy lies at the heart of the recovery process. This is a belief that is shared by many UK businesses, including the National Grid, HSBC and Heathrow Airport, as well as environmental campaigners such as Greenpeace, which recently published its Green Recovery manifesto. By investing in renewables, we can use this opportunity to accelerate progress towards a more prosperous society without the environment payoff. And if we do, industries will come out of the crisis in a better, more future-proofed position than they were before.
Things are going in the right direction, if recent figures are anything to go by. Last month, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said that while global energy demand is expected to fall by 6% this year, renewable energy electricity will grow by 1%. Underpinning the growth is a 5% rise in demand for renewable electricity.
But the trouble is that renewable energy is finite, and demand is at risk of outstripping supply. At the moment, around 35-40% of the UK’s overall electricity consumption is renewable. Getting this up to 100% will be a difficult task and will require a substantial investment in new infrastructure. But it is possible – as demonstrated by Iceland, which generates all its electricity from renewable sources.
Compounding the issue of supply, though, is the exponential growth in electricity demand that we expect to see over the next decade, as millions more people make the switch to electric vehicles. This means if we are to plug the gap and continue to work towards net zero carbon emission in the next few decades, we will need to see two things: more investment in renewable generation and smarter ways of managing energy consumption.
Galvanizing support for investment in renewables is difficult to do on a pure economic case alone. Therefore, it will need to be driven by a collective willingness to protect our planet. But now, in the wake of COVID-19, we find ourselves at an exciting tipping point. The potential and the appetite for change, is there. It is no longer only business leaders who have had a taste of transformation.
Societal shifts such as teleconferencing and remote working have given everyone a little extra momentum. Governments and business leaders must now choose to invest in renewable infrastructure and greener operations, paving the way for widespread and long-lasting change. Businesses who own their own land and/or premises should also consider generating their own electricity on-site to alleviate some of the pressure from the National Grid.
How to manage renewable energy with limited supply
Previously, when we needed more energy, we would build more power stations. Naturally, this is not sustainable in the long term, so what we need to do is limit wastage and ensure that we are being smart with what we do have.
Renewable energy generation also needs to be supported by smarter management of our energy consumption. This is when technologies like Demand Side Response (DSR) come to the fore, as they will allow businesses to manage energy consumption across their premises in a sustainable and cost-efficient way.
Currently, DSR is used to balance supply across the National Grid, but in the future we expect it will be so sophisticated that it will allow businesses to optimise energy usage across your premises by shifting power to where it is needed. In the future, businesses will have multiple charge stations being used at one time by employees for their electric vehicles. To compensate for this, DSR would dim the office lights or turn down the air conditioning, leading to lower energy costs and less demand on supply. We need to get ready for this by starting today.
Energy suppliers will play a central role in supporting the journey to net zero by incentivising more sustainable behaviour amongst businesses and consumers. For example, many energy suppliers are already being smart about how they shift demand by offering customers lower rates at non-peak times.
We as energy management experts, need to take the complex thinking and processes away from busy business leaders and allow them to focus on other priorities. We have all got a way to go, but the lessons from COVID-19 have given us the motivation to push forward even further.