Coronavirus pandemic leads to profound cutbacks in fossil fuel use

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections by Karin Kirk

A banner on the International Energy Agency website spells it out in bold font: “The global oil industry is experiencing a shock like no other in its history.”

As the response to the coronavirus pandemic upends the lives of billions of people, the world’s thirst for oil is undergoing an uncharacteristic lull. The IEA analysis describes ripple effects through the entire industry: “As demand plummets, the entire supply chain of oil refining, freight, and storage is starting to seize up.”

Not even the most wildly optimistic climate activist could have imagined the way fossil fuel use has fallen off a cliff in recent weeks. But profound human suffering, widespread economic hardship, and amplified inequity and injustice underlie the ebb in energy use. This is far removed from a situation that merits celebration. However, there are questions to examine in light of an unanticipated, unintentional, and likely temporary lapse in carbon emissions.

For example, how does the current downturn in fossil fuel use compare to what’s needed to put the world on track to avoid the most severe effects of climate change? As we proceed down a decades-long path to a fossil fuel phase-out, at what point would emissions have to be limited to right where they are currently – but permanently rather than temporarily?

Here’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation that breaks down those questions, but with the caveat that this is entirely based on projections and estimates, many of which are changing daily. This is not an emissions inventory or a prediction of the future. That said, the profound and near-instant dropoff of fossil fuel consumption allows for an unusual opportunity to examine carbon emissions in a new light.

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