Can the fight against COVID-19 help the climate change fight?

With the world reeling under the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, some are trying to make sense of our disrupted world, and find lessons and hope for the fight against climate change.

One thoughtful and useful article is  “Can COVID-19 create a turning point in the fight against climate change?”,  which appeared in Medium on March 13.  Acknowledging that the pandemic is distracting attention and resources from the climate fight, author Kaveh Madani  argues that “The COVID-19 crisis is teaching us some lessons and implementing some reforms that are essential for success in mitigating the climate crisis.” Specifically, economic and financial reforms; reduction of GHG emissions; the move to “virtual life”, including teleworking; reduction of aviation travel and consumerism; the importance of science; the interconnectedness of our global world, and conversely, the importance of individual action.

Another widely-cited article  appeared in Fast Company, “What would happen if the world reacted to climate change like it’s reacting to the coronavirus? . The article quotes May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, who finds hope in the fact that: “We’ve seen that governments can act, and people can change their behavior, in a very short amount of time… And that’s exactly what the climate movement has been asking governments and people to do for years in the face of a different kind of threat—the climate crisis.”  The downside? The response to the climate threat has not been as swift and strong, which she attributes to the perception that it is a “ somewhat distant problem, despite the growing number of climate-related disasters that happen every year”, and because “in the climate crisis, powerful companies have a lot to lose if the world acts decisively, and with the virus, though many people are losing money, there’s no similarly massive opposition to trying to address the problem.”

Two articles on March 15 in The Energy Mix explore how the Coronavirus has disrupted the oil and gas industry, and how that may help the climate fight.   “Coronavirus Triggers OPEC+ Breakup, Drives Deepest Oil Price Dive in 29 Years” (March 15)  summarizes the geopolitics and oil price collapse;  “Oil War and Covid-19 Create Risk, Opportunity for Clean Energy”  (March 15)  summarizes the opinions of several market analysts who argue that “It doesn’t make sense to reduce your investment in renewables if the oil price crashes …It’s more logical to reduce your investment in oil.”  Amongst possible benefits:  governments would reduce fossil fuel subsidies and redirect funding to health priorities, and  investment redirected to clean energy would strengthen that sector.

Finally, Avi Lewis of The Leap wrote a Globe and Mail Opinion piece, “In the midst of converging crises, the Green New Deal is the answer in which he argues: ” In the midst of all these terrifying and converging disasters, this is perhaps the greatest opportunity – to shatter the shackles of austerity thinking and see the potential for government to do big things, like actually lead a democratic and inclusive response to the climate emergency at the speed and scale that science and justice require.”

Scotland’s Just Transition Commission releases interim report and recommendations

offshore wind Beothuk Installation Newfoundland.jpgOn February 27 , the Scottish Just Transition Commission released its Interim Report , emphasizing the urgency for the Scottish Government to begin planning for transition immediately, and offering some positive examples of initiatives underway.  The Commission  calls for a government commitment to develop a Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan- specifically, an “assessment of workforces most likely to be affected by the transition (including those indirectly affected through supply chains), and the most immediate and pressing skills requirements needed to support the net-zero transition”.  The Commission’s interim recommendations also include:  a call to “Place equity at the heart of the Climate Change Plan update”; ensure that there is transition support for the Agriculture sector; establish a Citizens Assembly on climate change, operating independently of the Scottish Government; promote Scotland’s approach to just transition at COP 26 meetings in Glasgow in 2020; expand on the success of energy efficiency initiatives with funding support; begin planning for low-carbon infrastructure, noting that future government infrastructure investment should avoid locking in emissions and inequality; place the climate emergency at the heart of spending decisions; and improve modelling and research to help understand the transition.

Perhaps most controversial is the final recommendation:

“The oil and gas industry currently provides and supports a large number of high quality jobs meaning any transition for the sector and its supply chain in the decades ahead will need to be carefully managed. Strategies such as Roadmap 2035 from Oil and Gas UK have begun to set out the role industry believe they can play in a net-zero economy.    … To further support the deployment of CCUS and hydrogen, Government should consider supporting a programme of focussed research in collaboration with industry, with the aim of delivering a reduction in the costs of deploying these energy solutions in a way that secures a just transition for workers and stakeholders. “

The  Scottish Just Transition Commission  was launched in  September 2018, chaired by Professor  Jim Skea, and including two unionists amongst its membership: Richard Hardy, the National Secretary for Scotland and Ireland at labour union Prospect , and Dave Moxham, Deputy General Secretary of the Scottish Trade Union Congress .  The Commission has issued a Call for Evidence in 2020, with a final report and recommendations expected in 2021.  In the meantime, the Commission states that 2020 will be used to “consider a range of cross-cutting themes such as finance, skills and technology innovation”, and have commissioned a report on international just transition experiences.  The Interim Report also references several existing reports, including one commissioned by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust: The State of the Coalfields 2019: Economic and social conditions in the former coalfields of England, Scotland and Wales (July 2019), published by the  Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at She­eld Hallam University, in Sheffield.

Reaction is summed up by Friends of the Earth Scotland in its favourable statement, “Time to move beyond rhetoric on just transition, say Unions and environmentalists”. Reaction from the Scottish Trade Unions Congress is here ; Prospect’s reaction is here .  

U.K. energy workforce will need 400,000 workers to reach net-zero emissions by 2050

building the net zero workforceThe U.K. has a target of net-zero emissions by 2050. A new report,  Building the Net Zero Workforce , forecasts the likely employment and skills impacts of that goal for the energy industry, assuming that it will require a 50% increase in low carbon electricity generation; installation of low carbon heating systems in approximately 2.8 million homes; installation of  60,000 charging points to power 11 million electric vehicles (EVs); and development of  carbon capture usage and storage technology as well as hydrogen networks  – all by 2030. 

To accomplish all this, the report projects that the energy industry will need to recruit for 400,000 jobs between 2020 and 2050 – 260,000 in new roles, and 140,000 to replace those who will be leaving in what is an anticipated retirement crunch. The report forecasts both time dimensions and regional needs, concluding that jobs will be available in all regions of  the U.K. and for a diverse range of skills, “from scientists and engineers, to communications professionals and data specialists.”  More specifically,  “The roles included in this analysis are those involved in the operation, generation, transmission, distribution and retail of energy in the UK, as well as those in the supply chain related to building, upgrading, maintaining or operating infrastructure required to reach net zero.”

The report emphasizes the role of young people and a need to encourage women in STEM professions.  In general, there is a need for training and re-training for the emerging technologies such as AI. The report notes, without details, that : “ By investing in retention and retraining, and working collaboratively with government and unions, the sector can help ensure a fair energy transition, one in which workers of all ages and backgrounds and from every community in the UK can play their part.”

The report was written by an independent research company, Development Economics, under a commission by National Grid, a U.K. organization which owns and operates electricity transmission in parts of the U.K., and invests £7.5 million per year in training.

Phase-out, not expansion of fossil fuels – some recommendations for Canada

Oil, Gas and the Climate: An Analysis of Oil and Gas Industry Plans for Expansion and Compatibility with Global Emission Limits was published by the Global Gas and OilGas-ReportCoverOil Network (GGON) in December 2019.  The report analyzes the expansion plans of the oil and gas industry in relation to the global Paris climate goal of a 1.5C warming limit, and concludes that “if the world uses all the oil and gas from the fields and mines already in production, it will push us beyond 1.5°C of warming. This is true even if global coal use were phased out overnight, and if cement emissions were drastically reduced.” This report is the latest to sound this alarm: for example, Oil Change International, part of the GGON , began to publish such warnings in 2016 with The Sky’s Limit: Why the Paris Climate Goals Require a Managed Decline of Fossil Fuel Production , followed by Drilling towards Disaster in 2019.

Oil, Gas and the Climate states that from now until 2024, oil and gas companies are set to invest a further $1.4 trillion U.S.  in new oil and gas extraction projects – with 85% of that expansion in North America, and with the impact of the U.S. alone putting a 2 degree warming target out of reach.  Further, it states that over 90% of U.S. expansion would be shale production dependent on fracking.  It highlights that the Permian Basin (west Texas and southeastern New Mexico) would account for 39% of new U.S. oil and gas production by 2050. “It holds the greatest risk for new oil and gas development in the United States and in the world.”

Projected Canadian investment is a distant second to that of the U.S., but even so, the report states that “new oil and gas development in Canada between now and 2050 could unlock an additional 25 GtCO2 , more than doubling cumulative emissions from the sector.” The report highlights the approved Exxon Aspen Oil Sands project and the pending Teck Frontier Mine, but warns  “…Shale gas extraction, particularly the Montney Shale Basin in British Columbia, is a major focus of the industry…From 2020 to 2050, new gas projects could be responsible for as much CO2 as new oil projects.” (For a recent overview of the extent of Canada’s LNG infrastructure, see The New Gas Boom, published by Global Energy Monitor in June 2019).

“A better future is possible”, and here’s how to get there:

Despite the grim projections, Oil, Gas and the Climate  argues that “a better future is possible” and calls for “the launch of a well-planned phase-out of oil and gas production that addresses the needs of workers and communities impacted by fossil fuel developments. ” The report recognizes the impact of recent civil society actions such as Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion, and calls on governments and investors to catch up with such leadership.

Based on the findings of the report, Environmental Defence makes the following recommendations to support Canada’s phase-out:

Clear new federal rules under our environmental assessment law that review possible expansions of oil and gas projects against our commitment to climate goals. If we cannot credibly demonstrate how investing in a fossil fuel project is consistent with a 1.5C warmed world then the project should not be permitted to go ahead.

Institutional investors should apply a similar screen that will guide their decisions regarding whether to provide financing for new projects.

The federal government must invest in research and development of new energy technologies like geothermal electricity that have huge employment and energy production opportunities in places like Alberta and northern British Columbia. At a minimum, the government should make available an amount equivalent to the billions in subsidies that have been given to the fossil fuel industry through tax breaks or direct investment in pipeline infrastructure (e.g. Trans-Mountain) – subsidies that should be phased out rapidly. Success will create skills-linked jobs and massive supply of electrical energy for export to a North America that must replace the energy of fossil fuels.

Domestic demand for fossil fuels must be rapidly driven down through improved efficiency (e.g. buildings, appliances, manufacturing), electrifying transportation and home heating and increased renewables generation and storage.

The Oil, Gas and the Climate report is a project of the Global Gas and Oil Network , supported by Oil Change International; 350.org; Center for Biological Diversity; Center for International Environmental Law; CAN-Rac Canada; Earthworks; Environmental Defence Canada; Fundacin Ambiente y Recursos Naturales:FARN; Global Witness; Greenpeace; Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie); Naturvernforbundet; Observatorio Petrolero Sur; Overseas Development Institute; Platform; Sierra Club; Stand.Earth.

Canadians favour a shift away from oil and gas, 68% support federal help for worker transition

abacus 2019 just transitionAn online survey  was conducted by Abacus Data in mid- December 2019 to gauge opinion about an energy transition and compare attitudes in Alberta with those in the rest of Canada. The summary was posted to the Abacus website on January 3 and to Clean Energy Canada, which commissioned the survey, here .  Based on responses from a random sample of 1,848 adults,  a majority of Canadians and Albertans recognize that energy transition is a global issue and a necessary development, although in Alberta, only 49% see it as beneficial for the province in the long-term.

Further insights:  

72% across Canada, and 60% in Alberta would prefer to see Alberta’s economy shift over time because “global demand will change and Alberta will be left behind if the province is more dependent on oil.”

40% of Albertans want their Premier to “reject the idea of an energy shift and promote growth in Alberta’s oil sector.”  (Nationally, only 32% support promoting Alberta’s oil sector).

57%  of Albertans said an energy transition should be done more slowly or not at all, and 45% see it as intended to punish Alberta’s workers.

Nationally, 68% of respondents support federal government help for Alberta’s workers seeking new opportunities.  In Alberta, only 49% support such federal help for transitioning workers, while 51% want the federal government to help grow the province’s oil sector.