COVID-19: the gateway to transforming our energy systems?

Professor Alice Larkin, Head of the School of Engineering and Professor of Climate Science and Energy Policy, asks how we use the learnings from COVID-19 to transform our energy systems and tackle climate change.

There are two important lessons that we’ve learnt from the COVID-19 crisis to date. Firstly, that the priorities we were rigidly fixed to are open to change. Secondly, that these changes can happen quickly.

As we adjust to life in the “new normal”, this lecture explores how we use our lessons from lockdown to transform our energy systems, including:

  • Tackling the climate change emergency
  • Sustaining significant change for the longer term
  • How we prioritise for investment when focused, instead, on a climate change emergency
  • Making the most of this moment in time to help future generations

Recorded in August 2020

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Lecture transcript

There are two important lessons that we've learnt so far from the COVID-19 pandemic. Firstly, that our priorities can be different. And secondly, that change can happen quickly.

I'd like to talk about how these observations can be harnessed to tackle the climate emergency because, with everything going on in the world right now, you'd be forgiven for forgetting that we're in one.

For over two decades, I've worked to understand the scale of the climate change challenge and what this means for how our energy systems must transform to one that urgently minimises the amount of CO2 released into our atmosphere.

When I talk about the energy system that can sound rather technical, but what this captures is how you and I use energy in our everyday lives - what we use it for, how much we use, where it comes from and how it's delivered.

The climate emergency is so great that it's much more than transferring some electricity from renewable onto our grid. We're talking about every aspect of energy consumption for transport, heating, cooling, cooking, industrial processes.

Some of these uses require electricity, some require fuel such as petrol or gas. We need to transform away from these high carbon fuels and decarbonise electricity, but the critical aspect is how quickly we need to do this and that's why it's not just about technology.

Technical solutions exist for cutting CO2 emissions, but some will take decades to be sufficiently widespread within the system. This is where understanding engineering comes in; modelling how an idealised technology might help in theory is very different to the more complicated slower process of constructing new infrastructure, retrofitting alternative technologies for heating into every home or designing and making sufficient numbers of electric vehicles.

That's why it matters how much of this energy we consume. If society can consume less energy, then we will not be needing to transform as much high carbon infrastructure. But consuming less energy has previously taken a back seat in the policy debates to decarbonising our energy supply and one of the reasons for this is that it requires changes to individual and collective behaviour, attitudes and expectations - aspects that are seemingly more politically sensitive than a shift in technology.

For example, I've worked for years on cutting the CO2 from air travel but the political appetite for reducing flights has been minimal despite widespread understanding that decarbonising aviation will take longer than the time we have to meet our Paris Climate Agreement objectives.

So back to COVID-19 and what we have learned. We've learned that people can work and live differently. We can accept less commuting, less flying, less buying material goods - all energy consuming activities.

Benefits have, for some, included spending more time with family or in their local park, learning to make and bake again or building community. We've accepted and sometimes benefited from these changes because we know that there is a threat to human society.

This illustrates that perhaps we could accept changes specifically targeted at reducing energy consumption or supporting the huge investment required in low-carbon infrastructure, again because of a threat to human society, but this time from climate change.

This is not to say that all COVID-19 related change aligns with what we need to do to transform our energy system. Being encouraged to avoid public transport is one clear example of a clash between the two.

And, as others have pointed out, we need to scrutinise if we've just seen a shift from where we are consuming energy, such as from petrol for commuting, into electricity for homeworking. Or does this present an opportunity, given that electricity is easier to decarbonise than liquid transport fuel?

But more importantly, we need more than a temporary change in our levels of energy consumption to combat climate change. We need the change to be sustained, far-reaching, and increased to meaningfully tackle the climate emergency. We have learned that people can accept change and do things differently when society is under threat and we have learned that change can be rapid.

What we don't know yet is if we can sustain significant change to both how we do things and what we prioritise for investment when focused instead on a climate emergency. Can we take advantage of the flux created by COVID-19 in our everyday lives to develop policies that can lead to sustained but acceptable reductions in energy consumption?

Can decision makers direct investment that we now know can be made available towards regional and nationwide rapid and radical interventions? Retrofitting our entire housing stock, re-purposing our roads for cycling and walking, accelerating the roll-out of renewable energy. If we don't take advantage of this moment in time where we have demonstrated that society can accept deep change, then we will pass up our opportunity of a lifetime to help future generations. Thank you.

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