Decisions being taken now to address the social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis come amid profound uncertainty about both the course of the pandemic and its long-term ramifications for societies across the world, says IRENA Director-General Francesco La Camera.
The immediate priority remains to save as many lives as possible, bring the health emergency under control and alleviate hardship. At the same time, governments are embarking on the monumental task of devising stimulus and recovery packages. These are at a scale to shape societies and economies for years to come.
This response must align with medium- and long-term priorities. The goals set out in the UN 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement can serve as a compass to stay on course during this disorienting period. They can help to ensure that the short-term solutions adopted in the face of COVID-19 are in line with medium- and long-term development and climate objectives.
Stimulus and recovery packages can also accelerate the shift to sustainable, decarbonised economies and resilient inclusive societies. A coherent design approach is needed to secure political buy-in, business support and social acceptance. As the current crisis makes clear, we can no longer afford to make policy decisions and investments in isolation amid elaborately intertwined social, economic and environmental challenges.
The fundamentally economic, more than financial, nature of this crisis calls for a major state role in the response. This involves defining the strategies and initiating direct interventions for the way out. Expansionary budget policies may be envisaged to support this effort.
Stimulus and recovery measures in response to the pandemic must foster economic development and job creation, promote social equity and welfare, and put the world on a climate-safe path. By making the energy transition an integral part of the wider recovery, governments can achieve a step-change in the pursuit of a healthy, inclusive, prosperous, just and resilient future.
Energy transitions are already underway in many countries. These transitions have become increasingly affordable because of forward-looking policy frameworks, ongoing innovations and falling technology costs for renewables. Solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind power have become the cheapest sources of electricity in many markets, with other renewable power sources poised to reach cost parity within a few years. In the power sector, renewables have dominated new capacity additions and increasingly outpaced fossil fuels for the past seven years. Last year alone, renewables accounted for nearly three-quarters of global power capacity additions.
The economic fallout from the pandemic is far-reaching, with an adverse impact on many sectors including renewables. For many reasons, however, the impact may be different than in other economic sectors. Governments can turn to a renewables-based energy transition to bring a range of solutions at this difficult moment. Many renewable technologies can be ramped up relatively quickly, helping to revive industries and create new jobs.
Decentralised solutions tend to be comparatively labour-intensive. Adopting renewables can, therefore, create employment and boost local income in both developed and developing energy markets. Employment in the sector, which reached 11 million jobs worldwide in 2018, could quadruple by 2050, while jobs in energy efficiency and system flexibility could grow by another 40 million.
Decentralised technologies also allow for greater involvement by citizens and communities in energy decisions, with transformative social implications. Importantly, they offer a proven approach for remote health care in energy-poor communities and add a key element to the crisis response toolkit.
In the creation of future infrastructure, energy solutions aimed at scaling up renewables provide a safe and visionary strategic investment choice. Recovery measures could help to install flexible power grids, efficiency solutions, electric vehicle (EV) charging systems, energy storage, interconnected hydropower, green hydrogen and multiple other clean energy technologies. With the need for energy decarbonisation unchanged, such investments safeguard against short-sighted decisions and increased accumulation of stranded assets.
The latest oil price developments and the heightened unpredictability of returns on hydrocarbon investments make the business case for renewables even stronger. Current market dynamics could further weaken the viability of unconventional oil and gas resources and long-term contracts. The moment has come to reduce or redirect fossil-fuel subsidies towards clean energy without added social disruption.
Research and innovation are vital to keep improving the technologies and reduce the costs for sustainable energy. This is especially true in end-use sectors like transport, heating and cooling, as well as for enabling technologies such as energy storage and green hydrogen. Governments must embrace these forward-looking options to ensure that public policies and investment decisions reflect the true potential for low-carbon economic development.
These should be major considerations as policymakers put together recovery measures. A purely market-driven approach will not be adequate, either to respond to the immediate crisis or to mobilise longer-term investments. Governments will have to consider innovative approaches to secure financing at the requires scale and speed. Clear long-term objectives, combined with targeted public investment and appropriate market incentives, will also enable the private sector to act swiftly and confidently.
While the current crisis has undoubtedly underlined global interconnections and strengthened the vision of a more resilient society at national and regional levels, it has also highlighted the vast differences in countries’ circumstances and capacities. International co-operation is needed to tackle deeply embedded shortfalls and vulnerabilities, and crisis responses must reflect global co-dependency. Investments must be directed everywhere they are needed, including the most vulnerable countries and communities.
This year was meant to be a turning point for climate and sustainable development, with 2020 marking the start of the decade of action. The unexpected pandemic, with its devastating consequences for communities and economies, is upending plans, interrupting trends and testing assumptions. We are yet to see the contours of the post-COVID world.
The mounting loss of life is devastating, and the strain on communities and economies will require thoughtful and far-reaching strategies. A wider perspective is needed, viewing energy, society, economy and the environment as parts of a unique, holistic system.
The response must provide more than just a bail-out for existing socio-economic structures. Now, more than ever, public policies and investment decisions must align with the vision of a sustainable and just future. Such undertakings are certainly ambitious. But they are entirely achievable with a collective, co-ordinated response.