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How the response to the Covid crisis can reshape the future of energy

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It has been a tumultuous year for the global energy system. The Covid-19 crisis has caused more disruption than any other event in recent history, leaving scars that will last for years to come. But whether this upheaval ultimately helps or hinders efforts to accelerate clean energy transitions and reach international energy and climate goals will depend on how governments respond to today’s challenges.

The World Energy Outlook 2020, the International Energy Agency’s flagship publication, focuses on the pivotal period of the next 10 years, exploring different pathways out of the crisis. The new report provides the latest IEA analysis of the pandemic’s impact: global energy demand is set to drop by 5% in 2020, energy-related CO2 emissions by 7%, and energy investment by 18%. The WEO’s established approach – comparing different scenarios that show how the energy sector could develop – is more valuable than ever in these uncertain times. The four pathways presented in this WEO are described in more detail at the end of this press release.

In the Stated Policies Scenario, which reflects today’s announced policy intentions and targets, global energy demand rebounds to its pre-crisis level in early 2023. However, this does not happen until 2025 in the event of a prolonged pandemic and deeper slump, as shown in the Delayed Recovery Scenario. Slower demand growth lowers the outlook for oil and gas prices compared with pre-crisis trends. But large falls in investment increase the risk of future market volatility.

Renewables take starring roles in all our scenarios, with solar centre stage. Supportive policies and maturing technologies are enabling very cheap access to capital in leading markets. Solar PV is now consistently cheaper than new coal- or gas-fired power plants in most countries, and solar projects now offer some of the lowest cost electricity ever seen. In the Stated Policies Scenario, renewables meet 80% of global electricity demand growth over the next decade. Hydropower remains the largest renewable source, but solar is the main source of growth, followed by onshore and offshore wind.

“I see solar becoming the new king of the world’s electricity markets. Based on today’s policy settings, it is on track to set new records for deployment every year after 2022,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director. “If governments and investors step up their clean energy efforts in line with our Sustainable Development Scenario, the growth of both solar and wind would be even more spectacular – and hugely encouraging for overcoming the world’s climate challenge.”

The WEO-2020 shows that strong growth of renewables needs to be paired with robust investment in electricity grids. Without enough investment, grids will prove to be a weak link in the transformation of the power sector, with implications for the reliability and security of electricity supply.

Fossil fuels face varying challenges. Coal demand does not return to pre-crisis levels in the Stated Policies Scenario, with its share in the 2040 energy mix falling below 20% for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. But demand for natural gas grows significantly, mainly in Asia, while oil remains vulnerable to the major economic uncertainties resulting from the pandemic.

“The era of global oil demand growth will come to an end in the next decade,” Dr Birol said. “But without a large shift in government policies, there is no sign of a rapid decline. Based on today’s policy settings, a global economic rebound would soon push oil demand back to pre-crisis levels.”

The worst effects of the crisis are felt among the most vulnerable. The pandemic has reversed several years of declines in the number of people in Sub-Saharan Africa without access to electricity. And a rise in poverty levels may have made basic electricity services unaffordable for more than 100 million people worldwide who had electricity connections.

Global emissions are set to bounce back more slowly than after the financial crisis of 2008-2009, but the world is still a long way from a sustainable recovery. A step-change in clean energy investment offers a way to boost economic growth, create jobs and reduce emissions. This approach has not yet featured prominently in plans proposed to date, except in the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, Korea, New Zealand and a handful of other countries.

In the Sustainable Development Scenario, which shows how to put the world on track to achieving sustainable energy objectives in full, the complete implementation of the IEA Sustainable Recovery Plan moves the global energy economy onto a different post-crisis path. As well as rapid growth of solar, wind and energy efficiency technologies, the next 10 years would see a major scaling up of hydrogen and carbon capture, utilisation and storage, and new momentum behind nuclear power.

“Despite a record drop in global emissions this year, the world is far from doing enough to put them into decisive decline. The economic downturn has temporarily suppressed emissions, but low economic growth is not a low-emissions strategy – it is a strategy that would only serve to further impoverish the world’s most vulnerable populations,” said Dr Birol. “Only faster structural changes to the way we produce and consume energy can break the emissions trend for good. Governments have the capacity and the responsibility to take decisive actions to accelerate clean energy transitions and put the world on a path to reaching our climate goals, including net-zero emissions.”

A significant part of those efforts would have to focus on reducing emissions from existing energy infrastructure – such as coal plants, steel mills and cement factories. Otherwise, international climate goals will be pushed out of reach, regardless of actions in other areas. Detailed new analysis in the WEO-2020 shows that if today’s energy infrastructure continues to operate in the same way as it has done so far, it would already lock in a temperature rise of 1.65 °C.

Despite such major challenges, the vision of a net-zero emissions world is increasingly coming into focus. The ambitious pathway mapped out in the Sustainable Development Scenario relies on countries and companies hitting their announced net-zero emissions targets on time and in full, bringing the entire world to net zero by 2070.

Reaching that point two decades earlier, as in the new Net Zero Emissions by 2050 case, would demand a set of dramatic additional actions over the next 10 years. Bringing about a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030 requires, for example, that low-emissions sources provide nearly 75% of global electricity generation in 2030, up from less than 40% in 2019 – and that more than 50% of passenger cars sold worldwide in 2030 are electric, up from 2.5% in 2019. Electrification, innovation, behaviour changes and massive efficiency gains would all play roles. No part of the energy economy could lag behind, as it is unlikely that another would be able to move fast enough to make up the difference.

The different pathways in the WEO-2020

The Stated Policies Scenario (STEPS), in which Covid-19 is gradually brought under control in 2021 and the global economy returns to pre-crisis levels the same year. This scenario reflects all of today’s announced policy intentions and targets, insofar as they are backed up by detailed measures for their realisation.

The Delayed Recovery Scenario (DRS) is designed with the same policy assumptions as in the STEPS, but a prolonged pandemic causes lasting damage to economic prospects. The global economy returns to its pre-crisis size only in 2023, and the pandemic ushers in a decade with the lowest rate of energy demand growth since the 1930s.

In the Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS), a surge in clean energy policies and investment puts the energy system on track to achieve sustainable energy objectives in full, including the Paris Agreement, energy access and air quality goals. The assumptions on public health and the economy are the same as in the STEPS.

The new Net Zero Emissions by 2050 case (NZE2050) extends the SDS analysis. A rising number of countries and companies are targeting net-zero emissions, typically by mid-century. All of these are achieved in the SDS, putting global emissions on track for net zero by 2070. The NZE2050 includes the first detailed IEA modelling of what would be needed in the next ten years to put global CO2 emissions on track for net zero by 2050.

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The World Needs to Wake Up to Long-Term Risks

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For the last 15 years the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report has been warning the world about the dangers of pandemics. In 2020, we saw the effects of ignoring preparation and ignoring long-term risks. The COVID-19 pandemic has not only claimed millions of lives, but it also widened long-standing health, economic and digital disparities. Billions of caregivers, workers and students – especially minorities who were disadvantaged before the pandemic – are now at risk of missing pathways to the new and fairer societies that the recovery could unlock. According to the Global Risks Report 2021, released today, these developments may further impede the global cooperation needed to address long-term challenges such as environmental degradation.

When it comes to technology access and digital skills, the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” risks widening and challenging social cohesion. This will particularly affect young people worldwide, as this group faces its second global crisis in a generation and could miss out altogether on opportunities in the next decade.

Financial, digital and reputational pressures resulting from COVID-19 also threaten to leave behind many companies and their workforces in the markets of the future. While these potential disparities could cause societal fragmentation for states, an increasingly tense and fragile geopolitical outlook will also hinder the global recovery if mid-sized powers lack a seat at the global table.

Once again, environmental risks dominate by impact and likelihood, looking ahead towards the next decade. Societal fractures, uncertainty and anxiety will make it more difficult to achieve the coordination needed to address the planet’s continued degradation.

For the first time, the report also rates risks according to when respondents perceive they will pose a critical threat to the world. Clear and present dangers (0-2 years) reveal concern about lives and livelihoods – among them infectious diseases, employment crises, digital inequality and youth disillusionment. In the medium-term (3-5 years), respondents believe the world will be threatened by knock-on economic and technological risks, which may take several years to materialize – such as asset bubble bursts, IT infrastructure breakdown, price instability and debt crises. Existential threats (5-10 years) – weapons of mass destruction, state collapse, biodiversity loss and adverse technological advances – dominate long-term concerns.

“In 2020, the risk of a global pandemic became reality, something this report has been highlighting since 2006. We know how difficult it is for governments, business and other stakeholders to address such long-term risks, but the lesson here is for all of us to recognize that ignoring them doesn’t make them less likely to happen. As governments, businesses and societies begin to emerge from the pandemic, they must now urgently shape new economic and social systems that improve our collective resilience and capacity to respond to shocks while reducing inequality, improving health and protecting the planet. To help meet this challenge, next week’s event, The Davos Agenda, will mobilize global leaders to shape the principles, policies and partnerships needed in this new context,” said Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director at the World Economic Forum.

The report also reflects on the responses to COVID-19, drawing lessons designed to bolster global resilience. These lessons include formulating analytical frameworks, fostering risk champions, building trust through clear and consistent communication, and creating new forms of partnership. The key risks outlined in the report are complemented with recommendations to help countries, businesses, and the international community to act, rather than react, in the face of cross-cutting risks. The report closes with an overview of “frontier risks” – nine high-impact, low-probability events drawn from expert foresight exercises – including geomagnetic disruption, accidental wars and exploitation of brain-machine interfaces.

“The acceleration of the digital transformation promises large benefits, such as for example the creation of almost 100 million new jobs by 2025. At the same time however, digitalization may displace some 85 million jobs, and since 60% of adults still lack basic digital skills the risk is the deepening of existing inequalities,” said Peter Giger, Group Chief Risk Officer, Zurich Insurance Group. “The biggest long-term risk remains a failure to act on climate change. There is no vaccine against climate risks, so post-pandemic recovery plans must focus on growth aligning with sustainability agendas to build back better.”

“Economic and societal fallout from COVID-19 will profoundly impact the way organizations interact with clients and colleagues long after any vaccine rollout. As businesses transform their workplaces, new vulnerabilities are emerging. Rapid digitalization is exponentially increasing cyber exposures, supply chain disruption is radically altering business models, and a rise in serious health issues has accompanied employees’ shift to remote working,” said Carolina Klint, Risk Management Leader, Continental Europe, Marsh. “Every business will need to strengthen and constantly review their risk mitigation strategies if they are to improve their resilience to future shocks.”

“The pandemic in 2020 was a stress-test that shook the foundations of economies and societies worldwide. Rebuilding resilience to systemic shocks will require significant funding, international cooperation and greater social cohesion. Resilience will also hinge on the continued growth in connectivity worldwide, as we know that economies that digitized early performed relatively better in 2020,” said Lee Hyung-hee, President, Social Value Committee, SK Group. “If the continued deployment of 5G and AI is to emerge as an engine of growth, however, we must urgently bridge digital divides and address ethical risks.”

The Global Risks Report 2021 has been developed with the invaluable support of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Advisory Board. It also benefits from ongoing collaboration with its Strategic Partners Marsh McLennan, SK Group and Zurich Insurance Group and its academic advisers at the Oxford Martin School (University of Oxford), the National University of Singapore and the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center (University of Pennsylvania).

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Air travel down 60 per cent, as airline industry losses top $370 billion

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A new report from the UN’s air transportation agency confirms there was a “dramatic” fall in international air travel due to COVID-19, of around 60 per cent over the course of last year, to levels last seen in 2003.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) said on Friday, that as seating capacity fell by around 50 per cent last year, that left just 1.8 billion passengers taking flights through 2020, compared with around 4.5 billion in 2019.

That adds up to a staggering financial loss to the industry of around $370 billion, “with airports and air navigation services providers losing a further 115 billion and 13 billion, respectively”, said ICAO in a press statement.

Grounded in March

As the coronavirus began its global spread, the air industry came to a virtual standstill by the end of March. Following widespread national lockdowns, by April the overall number of passengers had fallen 92 per cent from 2019 levels, an average of the 98 per cent drop-off seen in international traffic and 87 per cent fall in domestic air travel.

There was a moderate rebound during the summer travel period, but recovery was short-lived. “Sectoral recovery became more vulnerable and volatile again during the last four months of 2020, indicating an overall double-dip recession for the year”, ICAO said.

Disparity at home and abroad

The report notes “a persistent disparity between domestic and international air travel impacts resulting from the more stringent international measures in force.”

Domestic travel proved more resilient and was the main driver of any glimmer of recovery to the industry, particularly in China and Russia, ICAO notes, where domestic passenger numbers have already returned to the pre-pandemic levels.

Overall, there was a 50 per cent drop in domestic passenger traffic globally, while international traffic fell by 74 per cent, or around 1.4 billion passengers.

The plunge in traffic, has put the entire industry’s financial liability into question said ICAO, and threatens the viability of millions of associated jobs around the world.

Tourism in crisis

It has also severely impacted global tourism, given that more than 50 per cent of international travellers used to reach their destinations by plane.

ICAO said that the regional breakdown in losses showed a $120 billion loss year-on-year in the Asia-Pacific region, $100 billion in Europe, $88 billion in North America, followed by $26 billion, $22 billion and $14 billion in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Africa, respectively.

The agency described the near term outlook as one of “prolonged depressed demand, with downside risks to global air travel recovery predominating in the first quarter of 2021, and likely to be subject to further deterioration.”

It does not expect any improvement until the second quarter of 2021, athough this will still be subject to the effectiveness of pandemic management and vaccination roll out across the world.

Best-case scenario

In the most optimistic scenario, said ICAO, by June of 2021 passenger numbers will be expected to recover globally to 71 per cent of their 2019 levels (or 53 per cent for international and 84 per cent for domestic flights). A more pessimistic scenario foresees only a 49 per cent recovery (26 per cent for international and 66 per cent for domestic).

ICAO will continue to provide recommendations and support for the aviation sector to weather the crisis. Its new Guidance on Economic and Financial Measures summarizes a range of measures that can be explored by States and the industry to ease the crisis, and strengthen the industry to withstand future shocks better.

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Reskilling and Labour Migration Vital to the Pacific’s Economic Recovery

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While the Pacific and Papua New Guinea (PNG) have avoided some of the worst health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the closure of international travel and lockdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19 have had serious impacts on employment, international labour mobility, and livelihoods across the region.

A new World Bank report, Pacific Island Countries in the era of COVID 19: Macroeconomic impacts and job prospects details the potential extent of job losses and labour market impacts in the region, while also suggesting how the Pacific may benefit from changing employment trends and other opportunities.  

Fewer local jobs and sluggishness in new international opportunities are all taking their toll on labour markets in the seven Pacific countries examined in the report (Fiji, Kiribati, PNG, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu). Of these, countries that are more reliant on international tourism such as Fiji, Vanuatu and Samoa have borne the brunt of these effects, with tourism-related employment dropping by an estimated 64 percent in Vanuatu and unemployment claims in June 2020 nearly tripling the 2019 total in Fiji. Employment figures in countries where tourism plays a smaller role are also sobering, with job advertisements in PNG dropping by 76 percent between February and May 2020 as a result of lockdowns and travel restrictions. Flow-on effects to other industries, including retail and food services, together with reductions in commodity prices and remittance inflows, have added to this significant economic hardship across the region.

The changes that we have seen in labour markets and employment across the Pacific are profound and are hitting the most vulnerable hardest – but importantly they are also leading families who would have been previously secure into vulnerable positions, especially workers in the tourism sector,” said Yasser El-Gammal, Practice Manager, Social Protection and Jobs, the World Bank

The report also highlights opportunities to mitigate the economic and employment shocks presented by the pandemic. These include prioritizing retraining and skill development of workers in affected industries, such as tourism, so they can move into sectors that require similar skill sets; promoting digital literacy skills to help Pacific islanders participate in remote working opportunities; and exploring new employment opportunities for low- and semi-skilled Pacific workers in Australia and New Zealand in the long term.

“Ultimately, workers from the Pacific will remain in demand in Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere for a long time to come,” said report author Matthew Dornan, Senior Economist at the World Bank. “The various Pacific labour mobility schemes that are focused on employment in rural and regional areas are not only crucial to livelihoods and employment in the Pacific, but beneficial for employers and businesses in Australia and New Zealand.”

Of particular focus in the report is the need to support skills development and employment services in response to the crisis and as part of the economic recovery. This could include subsidizing the reskilling of workers, support for work-study and apprenticeship schemes, the provision of temporary wage subsidies for the unemployed, and an expansion of international labour mobility opportunities for Pacific Islanders. The latter can be facilitated by efforts to improve the employability of Pacific workers (e.g., through upskilling), reducing the costs associated with cross-border labour migration, and by improved marketing and relationship management with international employers. Recipient countries can also play a role through labour policies.

“Labour mobility requires close cooperation between countries,” said co-author Soonhwa Yi, Senior Economist at the World Bank. “While policy improvements from Pacific governments could help expand the overseas employment opportunities available to Pacific Islanders, receiving countries also need to ensure their migration and working visa policies support future demand for increased labour mobility.”

The report stresses that moderating the employment and livelihoods impacts of COVID-19 across the region requires supportive policy responses from governments. While support to affected populations is a priority, governments could also consider support to businesses, as has been provided in Tonga and PNG; safeguarding cash-flow through tax and import duty relief, as has been undertaken in PNG, Samoa and Solomon Islands; and exploring opportunities for direct cash transfers and social assistance to vulnerable populations.

“The COVID-19 pandemic also crisis highlights the urgency for Pacific countries to expand IT-related infrastructure and increase their engagement in the digital economy,” said Soonhwa Yi. “This would provide opportunities for workers in the digital economy and better position Pacific countries to export digital services across borders.”

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