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Impact of COVID-19 on Commodity Markets Heaviest on Energy Prices

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While metal and agricultural commodities have recouped their losses from the COVID-19 pandemic and are expected to make modest gains in 2021, energy prices, despite some recovery, are expected to stabilize below pre-pandemic levels next year, the World Bank said.

Oil prices fell dramatically in the early stages of COVID-19 and have only partially regained pre-pandemic price levels, while metal prices declined relatively modestly and have returned to levels that preceded the shock, according to the semi-annual Commodity Markets Outlook report. Agriculture prices were relatively unaffected by the pandemic, but the number of people at risk of food insecurity has risen as a result of the broader effects of the global recession.

“The impact of COVID-19 on commodities has been uneven, and could have lasting effects for energy markets,” said Ayhan Kose, World Bank Group Acting Vice President for Equitable Growth, Finance & Institutions and Director for the Prospects Group. “When declines in commodity prices are short-lived, policy stimulus can buffer their impact. However, when prices remain depressed for an extended period, policy makers need to find solutions so their economies can adjust smoothly to a new normal. Because of COVID-19, the new normal for oil-exporting emerging and developing economies arrived earlier. In the post-COVID world, these countries need to be more aggressive in implementing policies to reduce their reliance on oil revenues.”

Oil prices are expected to average $44 per barrel in 2021, up from an estimated $41 per barrel in 2020. Demand is expected to rise only slowly as tourism and travel continue to be held back by health concerns and as global economic activity is anticipated to return to pre-pandemic levels only in the year after next. Supply restraint is expected to be eased steadily.  Energy prices overall —which also include natural gas and coal—are expected to rebound sizably in 2021, following large declines in 2020, an upward revision from April’s forecast. A resurgence of a second wave of the pandemic that results in more lockdowns and less consumption, and delays in vaccine development and distribution, could lead to lower energy prices than forecast.

Metal prices are expected to post modest increases in 2021 after falling in 2020, supported by the ongoing recovery in the global economy and continued stimulus from China. A prolonged period of weak global growth would lead to lower prices than forecast.

Agriculture prices are expected to rise slightly in 2021, following an estimated 3% increase in 2020 following some shortfall in edible oil production. Concerns about food insecurity remain relevant in several emerging market and developing economies. These concerns are prompted by hits to incomes from the global recession, bottlenecks in food availability at the local level, and border restrictions that have constrained labor supply. Food price inflation has spiked in several countries.

The pandemic is only the latest in a long history of shocks to commodity markets. A Special Focus looks at the nature of commodity price shocks on 27 commodities during 1970-2019. It finds that highly persistent (“permanent”) and short-lived (“transitory”) shocks have contributed almost equally to commodity price variation, although with wide variety across commodities. Permanent shocks account for most of agricultural commodity price variability while transitory shocks are more relevant in industrial commodity prices. The varied duration of such shocks points to a need for policy flexibility.

 A transitory commodity price shock may call for stimulative fiscal policy to smooth consumption; countries that depend on exports of commodities subject to cyclical price swings may want to build fiscal buffers during the boom phase and use them in the bust period to support economic activity. In countries that rely heavily on commodities that are subject to permanent shocks, structural policies such as economic diversification and broadening the tax base may be needed to facilitate adjustments to new economic environments.

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Hydrogen in North-Western Europe: A vision towards 2030

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North-West Europe has a well-developed hydrogen industry that could be at the edge of an unprecedented transformation should governments keep raising their ambitions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new joint report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Clingendael International Energy Programme (CIEP). 

The report, Hydrogen in North-Western Europe: A vision towards 2030, explores hydrogen developments, policies and potential for collaboration in the region. It was commissioned to inform discussions among governments from North-West Europe about the potential development of a regional hydrogen market. This intergovernmental dialogue was established at the Clean Energy Ministerial Hydrogen Initiative in 2020.

The report finds that the current policy landscape provides some momentum for the transformation of the hydrogen industry in North-West Europe towards 2030, but that it is insufficient to fully tap into the region’s potential to develop a large-scale low-carbon hydrogen value chain. More ambitious policies in line with the targets defined by the EU Green Deal or the UK Climate Change Act would drive a faster transformation.

If such a supportive policy framework were to be adopted, hydrogen demand in the region could grow by a third and low-carbon hydrogen could meet more than half of dedicated production, up from about 10% today, according to the report.

North-West European countries have already made significant progress developing their vision for the role hydrogen should play in their long-term energy strategies. These countries now face the challenge of moving beyond national discussions to establish a regional dialogue, an indispensable condition to develop the fully integrated hydrogen market the region needs. 

With the aim of informing this dialogue, the report identifies four priorities that should be addressed:

  • Build on the large unused potential to co-operate on hydrogen in the north-western European region.
  • Identify what is needed to develop an integrated regional market.
  • Develop supporting schemes with a holistic view of the hydrogen value chain.
  • Identify the best opportunities to simultaneously decarbonise current hydrogen production and deploy additional low-carbon supply.

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Seven Countries Account for Two-Thirds of Global Gas Flaring

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In an unprecedented year for the oil and gas industry, oil production declined by 8% in 2020, while global gas flaring reduced by 5%, according to satellite data compiled by the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership (GGFR). Oil production dropped from 82 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2019 to 76 million b/d in 2020, as global gas flaring reduced from 150 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2019 to 142 bcm in 2020. Nonetheless, the world still flared enough gas to power sub-Saharan Africa. The United States accounted for 70% of the global decline, with gas flaring falling by 32% from 2019 to 2020, due to an 8% drop in oil production, combined with new infrastructure to use gas that would otherwise be flared.

Gas flaring satellite data from 2020 reveals that Russia, Iraq, Iran, the United States, Algeria, Venezuela and Nigeria remain the top seven gas flaring countries for nine years running, since the first satellite was launched in 2012. These seven countries produce 40% of the world’s oil each year, but account for roughly two-thirds (65%) of global gas flaring. This trend is indicative of ongoing, though differing, challenges facing these countries. For example, the United States has thousands of individual flare sites, difficult to connect to a market, while a few high flaring oil fields in East Siberia in the Russian Federation are extremely remote, lacking the infrastructure to capture and transport the associated gas.

Gas flaring, the burning of natural gas associated with oil extraction, takes place due to a range of issues, from market and economic constraints, to a lack of appropriate regulation and political will. The practice results in a range of pollutants released into the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, methane and black carbon (soot). The methane emissions from gas flaring contribute significantly to global warming in the short to medium term, because methane is over 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide on a 20-year basis.

“In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, oil-dependent developing countries are feeling the pinch, with constrained revenues and budgets. But with gas flaring still releasing over 400 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions each year, now is the time for action. We must forge ahead with plans to dramatically reduce the direct emissions of the oil and gas sector, including from gas flaring,” said Demetrios Papathanasiou, Global Director for the Energy and Extractives Global Practice at the World Bank.

The World Bank’s GGFR is a trust fund and partnership of governments, oil companies, and multilateral organizations working to end routine gas flaring at oil production sites around the world. GGFR, in partnership with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Colorado School of Mines, has developed global gas flaring estimates based upon observations from two satellites, launched in 2012 and 2017. The advanced sensors of these satellites detect the heat emitted by gas flares as infrared emissions at global upstream oil and gas facilities.

“Awareness of gas flaring as a critical climate and resource management issue is greater than ever before. Almost 80 governments and oil companies have committed to Zero Routine Flaring within the next decade and some are also joining our global partnership, which is a very positive development. Gas flaring reduction projects require significant investment and take several years to produce results. In the lead-up to the next UN Climate Change conference in Glasgow, we continue to call upon oil-producing country governments and companies to place gas flaring reduction at the center of their climate action plans. To save the world from millions of tons of emissions a year, this 160-year-old industry practice must now come to an end.” said Zubin Bamji, Program Manager of the World Bank’s GGFR Partnership Trust Fund.

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IEA supports Indonesia’s plans for deploying renewable energy

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The IEA is carrying out a large work programme on power system enhancement with the Government of Indonesia to help it modernise the country’s electricity sector, including support for overcoming challenges inherent in integrating variable renewables like wind and solar PV.

As part of the work programme, the IEA hosted a series of webinars in early 2021 where Indonesia’s Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources and national power utility PLN could learn from other countries’ experiences of integrating and setting targets for variable renewable energy.

An introductory session on the principles of integrating renewable energy was held ahead of the country specific sessions. In this session, the IEA presented its framework for renewable integration phases to the Ministry and PLN, highlighting the different challenges often faced during renewable integration as well as what flexibility options can be deployed to tackle these challenges.

In the first country session, IEA presented the main findings of the Thailand flexibility study that the Agency carried out in cooperation with EGAT, the Thai electricity utility. The study shows that Thailand has the technical capability to integrate larger shares of variable renewables, but that the lack of commercial flexibility is a major barrier for operating the power system in a more flexible way and thus is the main obstacle for integrating large amounts of renewables.

In the second country session, the Danish Energy Agency presented its work programme with the Government of Viet Nam. The sessions focused on important aspects for integration of renewables, such as the assessing the needs and implications of reserves and forecasting. The session also included a discussion on the main learning points from the boom in rooftop solar that Viet Nam has experienced in 2020. 

The third and last country session was on India. The IEA presented both national as well as state-level modelling in order to show some of the contextual differences between national models and models that focus on specific geographical regions. In India, the spot market accounts for only 10% of electricity generation, which shows that India, like Thailand, has some issues with commercial flexibility. The discussion also covered India’s level of dependency on physical power purchase agreements and its impacts on the flexibility of the power system.

All sessions were held behind closed doors to allow for an open discussion between the participating organisations on the issues of renewable integration and possible ways of addressing barriers. The IEA will continue the work with the Indonesian Ministry and PLN on this topic in order to facilitate a path towards a clean, affordable, secure and modern power sector in Indonesia.

This work in Indonesia is undertaken within the Clean Energy Transitions in Emerging Economies programme.

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