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The Covid-19 crisis is causing the biggest fall in global energy investment in history

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The Covid-19 pandemic has set in motion the largest drop in global energy investment in history, with spending expected to plunge in every major sector this year – from fossil fuels to renewables and efficiency – the International Energy Agency said in a new report released today.

The unparalleled decline is staggering in both its scale and swiftness, with serious potential implications for energy security and clean energy transitions. At the start of 2020, global energy investment was on track for growth of around 2%, which would have been the largest annual rise in spending in six years. But after the Covid-19 crisis brought large swathes of the world economy to a standstill in a matter of months, global investment is now expected to plummet by 20%, or almost $400 billion, compared with last year, according to the IEA’s World Energy Investment 2020 report.

“The historic plunge in global energy investment is deeply troubling for many reasons,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director. “It means lost jobs and economic opportunities today, as well as lost energy supply that we might well need tomorrow once the economy recovers. The slowdown in spending on key clean energy technologies also risks undermining the much-needed transition to more resilient and sustainable energy systems.”

The World Energy Investment 2020 report’s assessment of trends so far this year is based on the latest available investment data and announcements by governments and companies as of mid-May, tracking of progress on individual projects, interviews with leading industry figures and investors, and the most recent analysis from across the IEA. The estimates for 2020 then quantify the possible implications for full-year spending, based on assumptions about the duration of lockdowns and the shape of the eventual recovery.

A combination of falling demand, lower prices and a rise in cases of non-payment of bills means that energy revenues going to governments and industry are set to fall by well over $1 trillion in 2020, according to the report. Oil accounts for most of this decline as, for the first time, global consumer spending on oil is set to fall below the amount spent on electricity.  

Companies with weakened balance sheets and more uncertain demand outlooks are cutting back on investment while projects are also being hampered by lockdowns and disrupted supply chains. In the longer-term, a post-crisis legacy of higher debt will present lasting risks to investment. This could be particularly detrimental to the outlook in some developing countries, where financing options and the range of investors can be more limited. New analysis in this year’s report highlights that state-owned enterprises account for well over half of energy investments in developing economies.

Global investment in oil and gas is expected to fall by almost one-third in 2020. The shale industry was already under pressure, and investor confidence and access to capital has now dried up: investment in shale is anticipated to fall by 50% in 2020. At the same time, many national oil companies are now desperately short of funding. For oil markets, if investment stays at 2020 levels then this would reduce the previously-expected level of supply in 2025 by almost 9 million barrels a day, creating a clear risk of tighter markets if demand starts to move back towards its pre-crisis trajectory.

Power sector spending is on course to decrease by 10% in 2020, with worrying signals for the development of more secure and sustainable power systems. Renewables investment has been more resilient during the crisis than fossil fuels, but spending on rooftop solar installations by households and businesses has been strongly affected and final investment decisions in the first quarter of 2020 for new utility-scale wind and solar projects fell back to the levels of three years ago. An expected 9% decline in investment in electricity networks this year compounds a large fall in 2019, and spending on important sources of power system flexibility has also stalled, with investment in natural gas plants stagnating and spending on battery storage levelling off.

“Electricity grids have been a vital underpinning of the emergency response to the health crisis – and of economic and social activities that have been able to continue under lockdown,” Dr Birol said. “These networks have to be resilient and smart to ward against future shocks but also to accommodate rising shares of wind and solar power. Today’s investment trends are clear warning signs for future electricity security.”

Energy efficiency, another central pillar of clean energy transitions, is suffering too. Estimated investment in efficiency and end-use applications is set to fall by an estimated 10-15% as vehicle sales and construction activity weaken and spending on more efficient appliances and equipment is dialled back.

The overall share of global energy spending that goes to clean energy technologies – including renewables, efficiency, nuclear and carbon capture, utilisation and storage  – has been stuck at around one-third in recent years. In 2020, it will jump towards 40%, but only because fossil fuels are taking such a heavy hit. In absolute terms, it remains far below the levels that would be required to accelerate energy transitions.

“The crisis has brought lower emissions but for all the wrong reasons. If we are to achieve a lasting reduction in global emissions, then we will need to see a rapid increase in clean energy investment,” said Dr Birol. “The response of policy makers – and the extent to which energy and sustainability concerns are integrated into their recovery strategies – will be critical. The IEA’s upcoming World Energy Outlook Special Report on Sustainable Recovery will provide clear recommendations for how governments can quickly create jobs and spur economic activity by building cleaner and more resilient energy systems that will benefit their countries for decades to come.”

The Covid-19 crisis is hurting the coal industry – with investment in coal supply set to fall by one-quarter this year – but does not pose an existential threat. Although decisions to go ahead with new coal-fired plants have come down by more than 80% since 2015, the global coal fleet continues to grow. Based on available data and announced projects, approvals of new coal plants in the first quarter of 2020, mainly in China, were running at twice the rate observed over 2019 as a whole.

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Structural Reforms Needed to Put Tunisia on Path to Sustainable Growth

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Decisive structural reforms and an improved business climate are essential to put Tunisia’s economy on a more sustainable path, create jobs for the growing youth population and better manage the country’s debt burden, according to the Winter 2021 Edition of the World Bank’s Tunisia Economic Monitor.

Titled “Economic Reforms to Navigate out of the Crisis” (in French, “Réformes économiques pour sortir de la crise”), the report estimates a slow economic recovery from COVID-19, with projected growth of 3% in 2021. Weighing on this recovery is rising unemployment, which increased from 15.1% to 18.4% in the third quarter of 2021, affecting the youth and people in the western regions hardest.

The report outlines how the weak recovery puts pressure on Tunisia’s already strained public finances, with the budget deficit still elevated at 7.6% in 2021, despite a small contraction from 9.4% in 2020.  The budget deficit is projected to gradually decline, reaching 5% to 7% of GDP in 2022-23, helped by lower health-related expenditures and provided that the moderately positive trajectory of spending and revenue are maintained. However, Tunisia’s rising public debt will be hard to finance without decisive public finance and economic reforms, the report noted.

“Just like everywhere else, COVID-19 has adversely affected Tunisia’s economy and the report strongly highlights the need to address longstanding challenges to sustainable growth, including improving the business environment,” said Alexandre Arrobbio, World Bank Country Manager for Tunisia. “To emerge from this crisis, Tunisia needs to adopt decisive reforms to promote private sector development, boost competitiveness and create more jobs, especially for women and youth.”

The first chapter of the report analyzes potential reasons behind Tunisia’s slow economic recovery and highlights two specific factors: the country’s reliance on tourism and transport services; and the rigidity of the business climate, including restrictions on investments and competition which constrain the reallocation of resources in the economy.

The second chapter elaborates on key barriers to competition, arguing that Tunisia’s current regulatory environment restricts competition and discourages the development of new businesses. Looking ahead, the report recommends that policy reforms to ensure a level playing field in every sector are essential in order to boost employment for Tunisians and to increase purchasing power.  

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Lebanon’s Crisis: Great Denial in the Deliberate Depression

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The scale and scope of Lebanon’s deliberate depression are leading to the disintegration of key pillars of Lebanon’s post-civil war political economy. This is being manifested by a collapse of the most basic public services; persistent and debilitating internal political discord; and mass brain drain. Meanwhile, the poor and the middle class, who were never well served under this model in the first place, are carrying the main burden of the crisis.

According to the World Bank Lebanon Economic Monitor (LEM) Fall 2021 “The Great Denial”, Lebanon’s deliberate depression is orchestrated by the country’s elite that has long captured the state and lived off its economic rents.  This capture persists despite the severity of the crisis –one of the top ten, possibly top three most severe economic collapses worldwide since the 1850s; it has come to threaten the country’s long-term stability and social peace. The country’s post-war economic development model which thrived on large capital inflows and international support in return for promises of reforms is bankrupt. In addition, the collapse is occurring in a highly unstable geo-political environment making the urgency of addressing the dire crisis even more pressing.

The LEM estimates real GDP to decline by 10.5 percent in 2021, on the back of a 21.4 contraction in 2020. In fact, Lebanon’s GDP plummeted from close to US$52 billion in 2019 to a projected US$21.8 billion in 2021, marking a 58.1 percent contraction—the highest contraction in a list of 193 countries.

Monetary and financial turmoil continue to drive crisis conditions, under a multiple exchange rate system which poses valuable challenges on the economy. The sharp deterioration in the Lebanese Lira persisted in 2021, with the US$ banknote rate and the World Bank Average Exchange rate depreciating by 211 and 219 percent (year-on-year), respectively, over the first 11 months of the year. Exchange rate pass through effects on prices have resulted in surging inflation, estimated to average 145 percent in 2021—ranking 3rd globally after Venezuela and Sudan. Inflation is a highly regressive tax, disproportionally affecting the poor and vulnerable, and more generally, people living on fixed income like pensioners. Food inflation remains concerning as it forms a larger proportion of the expenses incurred by poorer households who are struggling to make ends meet with their deteriorating purchasing power.

Government revenues are estimated to almost halve in 2021 to reach 6.6 percent of GDP, marking the 3rd lowest ratio globally after Somalia and Yemen. The expenditure contraction was even more pronounced, led partially by drastic cutbacks in primary spending, which has reinforced the economic spiral. Meanwhile, gross debt is estimated to reach 183 percent of GDP in 2021, taking Lebanon to the 4th highest ratio in the world preceded only by Japan, Sudan and Greece.

A rare relative bright spot in 2021 has been tourism, which helped hold the current account deficit-to-GDP ratio steady.

Starting Spring 2021, a disorderly termination of the foreign exchange (FX) subsidy commenced and was in full force by the summer. The path authorities followed to the subsidy removal was opaque, inadequately coordinated and lacked timely pro-poor alleviation measures. As a result, subsidy removal mostly benefited importers and smugglers while precious and scarce FX resources were drained.

“Deliberate denial during deliberate depression is creating long-lasting scars on the economy and society. Over two years into the financial crisis, Lebanon has yet to identify, least of all embark upon, a credible path toward economic and financial recovery,” said Saroj Kumar Jha, World Bank Mashreq Regional Director. “The Government of Lebanon urgently needs to move forward with the adoption of a credible, comprehensive and equitable macro-financial stabilization and recovery plan and accelerate its implementation if it is to avoid a complete destruction of its social and economic networks and immediately stop irreversible loss of human capital. The World Bank reconfirms its readiness to continue to support Lebanon in addressing the pressing needs of its people and challenges affecting their livelihoods.”

As detailed and called for in previous issues of the LEM, this strategy would be based on: (i) a new monetary policy framework that would regain confidence and stability in the exchange rate; (ii) a debt restructuring program that would achieve short-term fiscal space and medium-term debt sustainability; (iii) a comprehensive restructuring of the financial sector to regain solvency of the banking sector; (iv) a phased, equitable, fiscal adjustment to regain confidence in fiscal policy; (v) growth enhancing reforms; and (vi) enhanced social protection.

Particularly, initiating a comprehensive, well-structured and swift reform of the electricity sector is critical to address the long-standing and compounding challenges of this sector which is at the center of Lebanon’s economic and social recovery. In addition, Lebanon needs to step-up efforts to ensure efficient and prompt delivery of social protection assistance to the poor and vulnerable households struggling under the continuing economic crisis.

The Special Focus section of the LEM “Searching for the External Lift in the Deliberate Depression” examines the reasons for the weaker than expected increase in exports considering the Lebanese Lira’s sharp depreciation; it analyzes the failure thus far for the external sector to sufficiently benefit from increased price competitiveness and become a more robust driver of growth. The Special Focus finds that Lebanon’s exports are inhibited by three factors (outside of the crisis itself): (i) (pre crisis) economic fundamentals; (ii) global conditions; and (iii) political/institutional environment.

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Nearly half of City GDP at Risk of Disruption from Nature Loss

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Cities contribute 80% to global GDP – but they also account for 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Integrating nature-positive solutions can help protect cities from growing risks associated with extreme weather while driving sustainable economic growth.

In collaboration with the Alexander von Humboldt Institute and Government of Colombia, the World Economic Forum’s BiodiverCities by 2030 Initiative published a report addressing the urgency of cities’ untenable relationship with nature. The Initiative’s goal is to reverse this existential global threat and move forward with a plan that will result in cities and nature co-existing in harmony by the end of the decade.

The report is a call for multistakeholder action to integrate nature as infrastructure into the built environment. In making the economic case for BiodiverCities, Nature-based Solutions (NbS) for infrastructure and land-sparing are found to be cost-effective ways for cities to innovate and meet current challenges. Spending $583 billion on NbS for infrastructure and on interventions that release land to nature could create more than 59 million jobs by 2030, including 21 million livelihood-enhancing jobs dedicated to restoring and protecting natural ecosystems.

“In the conventional paradigm, urban development and environmental health are like oil and water,” said Akanksha Khatri, Head of Nature and Biodiversity, World Economic Forum. “This report shows that this does not have to be the case. Nature can be the backbone of urban development. By recognizing cities as living systems, we can support conditions for the health of people, planet and economy in urban areas.”

The report finds that by incentivizing investments in natural capital, cities can unlock the benefits of nature. Nature-based Solutions are on average 50% more cost-effective than man-made alternatives and deliver 28% more added value. This capitalization, in turn, instils and nurtures nature-positive values and fosters bio-inspired innovations that will ultimately optimize economic competitiveness and prosperity.

“As cities think about building for the post-pandemic future, they have a priority to provide their citizens with a more equitable and prosperous quality of life by protecting their natural resources,” said Mauricio Rodas, Co-Chair of the Global Commission on BiodiverCities by 2030 and former mayor of Quito, Ecuador. “In this report, we offer actionable solutions to heal the relationship between cities and nature. We need all stakeholders to invest in urban nature.”

“Cities don’t need to be concrete jungles in conflict with nature in and outside their boundaries,” said Jo da Silva, Arup Global Sustainable Development Leader. “They should be places where all people and nature co-exist and thrive together. Nature-based solutions offer wider benefits than traditional engineered ‘grey’ solutions – such as improving resilience, increasing citizens health and wellbeing and moving cities to net zero. Using powerful new digital mapping tools to help us understand cities as complex systems, we are increasingly adopting nature-based solutions in our projects – this needs to be accelerated on a global scale.”

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