New study reveals long and short-term impacts of COVID-19 on environment


Reducing investments in renewable energy projects could exacerbate the health and environmental crisis being faced in the US, according to a new study exploring the long and short term impacts of COVID-19 on the environment.

The study released by the MIT Sloan School of Management states that pushing back investments in renewable energy projects by one year could outweigh the emissions reductions and deaths avoided from March through June 2020.

Between late March and June 2020, the US reduced its use of jet fuel by 50% and gasoline by 30% whilst natural gas use in commercial and residential buildings declined by 20%. Overall energy demand declined by less than 10% in the US, the study has found.

Other key findings of the report include:

  • The shutdown also halted most investment in the transition to low-carbon energy.
  • Global electric vehicle sales will decline by 43% in 2020 due to fewer auto sales overall combined with low gasoline prices.
  • New residential rooftop solar and storage installations also declined along with energy efficiency audits.
  • Jobs within the clean energy space decreased by almost 600,000 by the end of April.

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In the event the US economy opens by the end of 2020, investment trends prior to the pandemic will continue and the long-run impact on carbon emissions and local air pollutant emissions could outweigh the short-run reductions.

The delays in investments in renewables and vehicle fuel economy could lead to an additional 2,500 MMT of CO2 from 2020-2035, which could cause 40 deaths per month on average or 7,500 deaths during that time.

Prof. Christopher Knittel, one of the authors of the report, said: “The pandemic raises two important questions related to the environment. First, what is the short-run impact on fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions? Second — and more important but harder to answer — what are the longer-term implications from the pandemic on those same variables? The health impacts from the pandemic could stretch out for decades if not centuries depending on the policy response.

“Overall, these reductions reflect a 15% total reduction in daily CO2 emissions, which is the largest annual percentage decline for the U.S. in recorded history.

“We estimate that the shutdowns saved about 200 lives per month, primarily driven by the lower emissions from transportation,” concludes Knittel.

Prof Jing Li, adds: “Climate change is one of the leading health issues of our time and it’s critical to understand the impact of delaying decarbonisation efforts because of the pandemic. If the pandemic leads to a persistent global recession, there is a real threat to the adoption of clean technology, which could outweigh any ‘silver lining’ in environmental benefits.”

“The short-term impact of the pandemic is clear, but the long-term impact is highly uncertain.

“It will depend on how long it takes to bring the pandemic under control and how long any economic recession lasts.”

In the second scenario, the report’s authors predict that the consequences of the pandemic will be greater, with many more deaths and deeper disruptions to supply chains, and a persistent global recession.

The need to backpedal on the reopening of the economy due to flare-ups could destroy rather than defer the demand for goods and services.

Budgets will be strained to pay for the costs of the virus, making it challenging to invest in clean energy. And if a recession persists, there may be pressure to lessen climate change mitigation goals. However, stimulus packages could focus on clean energy, increasing clean air, clean jobs, and national security.

Read more about the report.