10 June 2020 – Wednesday – #87

The Italian pizza restaurant on the corner re-opened yesterday. I will survive Barcelona’s New Abnormal just fine.

Except for the weather. The first time it rained three days in a row, my Barcelona friends told me that was an exceptional event that wouldn’t repeat this year. Well, this week is about the fourth time this year it’s rained three days in a row. Now my Barcelona friends are trying to remember when there was ever a year this wet.

At least there’s been less pollution during the pandemic, although air pollution is rising in Spain as the lockdown ends. Pollution has been lower because energy consumption dropped about 15% – 20% worldwide during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

Like the petroleum market where prices went negative in April when it looked like there wouldn’t be enough storage tanks for excess oil, electricity prices in Europe went negative several times as renewable sources continued pumping energy into the grid.

European electricity prices during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A dozen times during the pandemic, the European electricity market effectively was willing to pay for batteries.

The news is not so good for carbon-based energy producers. Coal and fracking are in shambles. Oil countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia have cut production significantly to prop up prices.

One silver lining from the energy market turmoil during Covid-19 is that it’s possible now for people to see that a renewable energy strategy works. Will Covid-19 help in other ways with climate change? That would be a good thing because the climate is changing. It’s not just the extraordinary rain this year in Barcelona.

Arctic Circle temperatures reach 86F on 9 June 2020.

Warming at the poles is creating a cascading set of problems, like infrastructure collapse, the release of CO2 and of viruses that have been locked in permafrost, and, last week, an enormous oil spill in Siberia.

The cause of the spill, in which 20,000 tons of diesel leaked from a reservoir owned by MMC Norilsk Nickel PJSC, hasn’t been determined but the company has suggested it could be the result of damage from melting permafrost. The rate of warming in the Arctic is twice as fast as the rest of the world.

Insurance Journal, “Massive Fuel Spill in Siberia Blamed on Melting Permafrost – or Climate Change,” 6 June 2020.

The Siberian spill is being compared in size to the 1989 Exxon Valdez catastrophe in Prince William Sound, except that the Siberian spill is due to climate change rather than human error. Well, I guess climate change might be considered a different version of human error.

Unfortunately, even though cutting energy use during the Covid-19 lockdowns also cut CO2 emissions by about 17%, the lower emissions didn’t last long enough to change CO2 levels much.

Daily emissions of carbon dioxide fell by an average of about 17% around the world in early April, according to the a comprehensive study last month. As lockdowns are eased, however, the fall in emissions for the year as a whole is only likely to be only between 4% and 7% compared with 2019. That will make no appreciable difference to the world’s ability to meet the goals of the Paris agreement, and keep global heating below the threshold of 2C that scientists say is necessary to stave off catastrophic effects.

The Guardian, “Atmospheric CO2 levels rise sharply despite Covid-19 lockdowns,” 4 June 2020.

It’s not that reduced energy consumption didn’t help because it did help a bit. It’s that consumption has to be reduced for a much longer period of time. It’s easy to see here that CO2 levels didn’t change too much after reducing CO2 emissions by 17% for just a couple months.

Manau Loa CO2 measurements show little change after Covid-19.

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we can change very quickly. So, can we cut CO2 emissions by 17% for a longer period of time? Can we cut emissions in a way that enables the economy to grow?

Some of the news about how Covid-19 can help climate change is bad. For instance, since there are fewer flights now, the EU and UN are postponing airline carbon caps that were supposed to start next year. Governments are willing to forgo CO2 reduction in order to keep afloat struggling industries like air travel. Will they do the same for, say, the carbon-based energy industry?

On the other hand, Covid-19 has helped with climate change. The lockdowns confirmed that renewable energy is a viable strategy. Many companies learned how to telecommute. To a large extent, video conferences replaced business travel. People started biking instead of using cars or public transit.

The World Economic Forum has identified many opportunities to mitigate climate change and to help the world economy come back after Covid-19 lockdowns. Stimulus programs can put labor back to work building green infrastructure and better public transit. Cities can allocate more space to bikes and restaurants, and less space to cars. Need an effective carbon mitigation work program? How about planting lots of trees?

In many ways, Covid-19 is like our training wheels for climate change. As the Siberian oil spill is showing us, disasters of the magnitude of the Exxon Valdez are table stakes for the magnitude of disasters we should expect from climate change.

Covid-19 teaches us two important lessons.

One is that cutting pandemic programs when we knew pandemics were more and more likely was expensive. It probably will cost the US alone 100,000 deaths and trillions of dollars of economic loss. If climate change isn’t addressed, the costs will be much higher than Covid-19 in both mortality and money.

Second is that deadly viruses get people to change. Covid-19 has shown that good leadership in places like South Korea, Vietnam, and Ghana can get people not only to change their behavior, but change it in ways that solve a problem with minimal economic distress.

Covid-19 may have been the right virus at the right time. In some ways, HIV and Ebola are easier viruses to deal with than Covid-19 from a public health perspective. With HIV and Ebola, chances were high before there were treatments and vaccines that infection resulted in death. That got people’s attention. That gave people a strong incentive to change behavior. During the AIDS epidemic, the incentives to avoid sex were strong, although not always stronger than the desire to have sex. Condoms were the life saving concession. No strong protests about using them.

Covid-19 infection, on the other hand, has a range of reactions from no symptoms to death, with death only about one percent of the time. Enough of a chance of death to create anxiety, but not necessarily to stay in when you feel a little under the weather or to stick to your 14 day quarantine. Enough mortality that people will play along with the experts for a little while, but protest when it comes to their own pocketbook. The risk profile of Covid-19 actually feels a little like the risk profile of climate change.

The virus reveals who we are.

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