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Managing two crises at the same time: COVID-19 and the climate emergency

May 6, 2020
Peter Garforth says consider incorporating deep energy efficiency measures into contingency planning for restarts or retooling.

The delay between writing and publishing this column will unfortunately mean many thousands of new infections, recoveries, and sadly deaths from COVID-19 will have occurred. The world economy will remain on pause for many, and will be in overload mode for some. Collectively we will all be trying to grasp how the immediate future will play out both privately and professionally.

About the Author: Peter Garforth

Moments like this are a good time to remember that we are in the middle of managing two parallel global emergencies with very different dynamics – the novel coronavirus and the climate emergency. The speed and breadth of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic rightly captures the headlines. However, the impacts of climate change will continue to deepen and the pressure to decarbonize our global energy systems will remain. There will inevitably be other pandemics, but we may only get one shot at managing the climate emergency.

Now is a good time to underline a company’s commitment to moving the energy efficiency and emissions reduction agenda forward while simultaneously dealing with the inevitable disruptions the pandemic will cause. This will serve as a useful reminder and signal to employees, customers, and other stakeholders that both emergencies must be aggressively managed to have a viable future for society.

This period of enforced operational downtime for many can create unique opportunities. Most importantly, it is a time to reflect on priorities. Many energy managers have a “what if” energy plan in their back pockets that needs unusual circumstances to have a chance of being implemented. In more normal times, the need to keep production lines running limits the degree with which deep efficiency measures could be considered. The current disruptions may point to phased restarts, or even rethinking a company’s entire product mix.

Now is the moment to incorporate deep energy efficiency measures into the contingency planning for the restart or retooling. This would be a major contributor to a company’s future emissions reductions and to its long-term competitiveness.

All serious energy plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will include an approach to dramatically reduce the carbon content of energy supply. Typically, this will include some combination of on-site renewables, on-site high-efficiency heat and power generation, along with green power contracts. These require finalizing integrated engineering, economic, and contractual arrangements. Again, this is the kind of preparatory work that can be concluded as easily in the home office as anywhere else.

Using this window for integrating energy transformation into production restart plans has another obvious benefit. As business restarts after the pandemic, suppliers of all kinds will be eager to get back to work as quickly as possible. For the well-prepared customer, this should mean being able to get access to the best global resources at competitive prices.

Most industrial energy management plans tend to focus exclusively on the cost and emissions impacts of energy used within the facilities and fleets in the form of various fuels and electricity. These are the so-called Scope 1 and 2 emission sources, in greenhouse gas terms. Often overlooked are other major unmanaged energy uses and costs.

One such unmanaged energy cost is buried in the materials and services the typical plant purchases to source, manufacture, and deliver products and services. Some of these inefficiencies can be as significant as the direct energy use. This could be a good moment to begin quantifying some of these and developing collaborative approaches to extend corporate energy management to include vendors and partners.

The current circumstances are teaching us that large amounts of work can be done effectively with far less on-site meetings and travel than we are used to. Every trip by car, bus, train, or plane uses energy, creates emissions, and costs time and money. Relatively modest changes in protocols and habits around meetings, business travel, and commuting can have major impacts on a company’s energy costs and emissions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated our willingness to mobilize huge amounts of financial and other resources to manage a crisis. At the time of writing, global commitments are measured in the trillion of dollars. Once the storm has passed, tackling the equally urgent climate emergency might just be the sustained economic opportunity the world needs.

The most recent assessment of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate indicates that decarbonizing our economies is a $26 trillion market growth opportunity, creating over 65 million jobs with the opportunity to avoid 700,000 premature deaths. There is certain irony that substantial reductions in atmospheric CO2 and NO2 levels are already being detected around the world, with the inevitable health benefits of cleaner air.

It always feels counter-intuitive in the middle of a relatively short-term crisis to develop plans aimed at deep and lasting long-term change. In reality, this is a rare moment where we have the luxury of thinking beyond the normal boundary of a corporate energy plan and create new competitive edges and societal benefits.

Energy Expert

This article is part of our monthly Energy Expert column. Read more from Peter Garforth.

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