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Up in the air: climate change uncertainty in an uncertain time

Eric Tilden • 6/1/2020

CLimate change (image)

The impact of COVID-19 on climate change

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been vast-reaching, affecting billions of individuals’ daily lives and interactions with our communities. One major area being heavily impacted: greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. With most of the world performing some form of social distancing, industrial productivity and commuting has declined immensely, resulting in fewer greenhouse gas emissions, a leading contributor to global climate change.

CLimate change (image)

Climate change and COVID-19 are global problems with dire consequences, both on human health and economic stability. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the effects of climate change may result in the death of 250,000 people annually between the years 2030 to 2050, for reasons including malnutrition, heat stress and more. If unchecked, global temperatures will rise by 4.5˚C and potentially impact nearly two dozen different sectors of the economy, and specifically, from a U.S. perspective, cost the country $520 billion* each year according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Both COVID-19 and climate change will require action to be taken by individuals in their daily lives, and perhaps more importantly, leadership by governments, corporations, and organizations worldwide to combat and minimize the effects.

The Impact on Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Now and Later 

According to China's Ministry of Ecology and Environment, January and March 2020 showed an 84.5 percent increase in days with good air quality across 337 cities. Overall, a 5.5- 5.7 percent fall in carbon dioxide levels globally have been identified due to the pandemic by leading climate experts, including the Center for International Climate Research

The U.S. has witnessed grid-wide declines in electricity usage, with some markets seeing a seven percent decrease compared to 2019. While residential use has increased, commercial and industrial demand has contracted, resulting in energy demand to be broadly down for most of 2020 to date. Since roughly 63 percent of electricity in the U.S. is generated from fossil fuels, this decline correlates to a drop in greenhouse gas emissions.

Overall, this is the first fall in global carbon emissions since 2008, and the largest amount since World War II. However, experts warn that without structural change, the emission declines caused by COVID-19 could be short-lived and have little impact on the concentrations of carbon that have accumulated in the atmosphere over decades.

For commercial buildings, data from Aquicore real-time energy meters across the Cushman & Wakefield U.S. portfolio tell a similar story. As office buildings have been sparsely populated, our building engineers have been provided guidance to bring buildings down to idle as much as possible and aggressively focus on limiting energy use. This has resulted in a nearly 24 percent decline nationally in energy use by our managed properties over the last month. 

While in the short term, carbon emissions have declined as cars stay parked and industries remain offline, eventually an increasing amount will resume. With that, history tells us carbon emissions will pick up again. Emissions dropped during both the 1970s oil crisis and the 2008 financial crisis, but emissions bounced back as economies recovered. In fact, as China has worked to restart their economy over the past month, air pollution levels and carbon emissions all seem to be bouncing back to pre-COVID-19 levels, according to the Finland-based non-profit, Centre for Research on Energy and Clean.

Additionally, the lower pricing of fossil fuels, partly due to COVID-19, can hurt long-time climate efforts, as cheaper energy often leads consumers to use it less efficiently. Furthermore, financing opportunities for solar, wind and electric grid projects are potentially reduced by financial pressures caused by the pandemic. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” This includes the immensely difficult goal of cutting global human-caused CO2 emissions 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030. However, COVID-19 has shown how we can work together globally to mitigate an immediate threat. While more difficult to direct this same determination and cooperation to a longer-term threat, it is a must as the potential consequences are not worth the risk of inaction.

What’s Next? 

As we emerge from our homes in the year ahead, we will be stepping into a new normal. Not only will social distancing and PPE be more common, but individuals, households, organizations, and financial institutions will be experiencing broad economic hardships. The World Bank notes that 2020 is on track to witness the deepest global recession on a scale not seen since The Great War, projecting GDP to contract in all developing regions.

This will be a time for governmental bodies to provide stimuli aimed at achieving financial and economic recovery. These actions can have long-lasting effects on economies, and some options may be better at long-term sustainable economic growth, poverty reduction, and environmental impact. “Thinking ahead, the urgent focus on short-term needs should not overlook opportunities to achieve other longer-term goals,” says experts from the World Bank.

A prime investment is the decarbonization of the global economy. There are diverse opportunities for investment that can boost job creation while generating sustainability and climate benefits, including investing in energy efficiency in the real estate sector. After all, buildings account for nearly 40 percent of energy-related global carbon dioxide emissions annually, according to the United Nations Environment Program. Here in the United States, residential and commercial buildings account for 40 percent of energy consumption, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Recovery Readiness and Energy Efficiency 

Reflecting on the impact of scale from COVID-19: one building focused on energy efficiency will do little – while one million can help reduce the effects of climate change for future generations. And in 2012, there were 5.6 million commercial office buildings in the U.S. alone, with an anticipated 36 percent increase by 2050.

As we prepare for cities and buildings to reopen, we must not lose focus on “flattening the curve” for energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Minimizing operating costs will be essential as both owners and tenants will be facing financial hardships. As we begin to reoccupy buildings, we anticipate seeing energy use rising back up especially with the new recommended protocols of operating systems longer, increasing outside air ventilation rates and improving filtration. This could create additional strain to operating budgets already impacted by COVID-19, as well as increase GHG emissions.

We released the “Recovery Readiness: A How-to Guide for Reopening your Workplace,” a comprehensive guide for real estate tenants and landlords on reopening in workplaces as stay-at-home restrictions are lifted. It outlines some of the best thinking and practices for getting people back into their offices. This includes preparing the building for occupant safety with cleaning plans, pre-turn inspections and enhanced HVAC operating protocols and maintenance routines.

Every building is unique, and will each take a specific approach based on its design and operation to apply recovery readiness efforts. A common recommendation before re-occupancy will be building flush outs with outside air. After occupancy, at a minimum, buildings will be ventilating at higher rates where systems designs allow. If potential COVID-19 cases are identified, ASHRAE (The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) recommends increasing outdoor air ventilation, disabling demand-controlled ventilation and opening outdoor air dampers to 100 percent as conditions permit, keeping systems running longer, and bypassing energy recovery ventilation systems that leak potentially contaminated exhaust air back into the outdoor air supply.

*All currency amounts listed in USD

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